Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On Final Passage of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Ranking Member, Senate Committee on the Judiciary,
On Final Passage of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act

June 16, 2016

One of America’s greatest strengths is our judicial system: a system based on the ideal of equal justice for all.  The Senate has a critical role to play in protecting this judicial system. Perhaps most importantly, it is our responsibility to confirm qualified judges to vacancies throughout the country so that our courts function at full strength and Americans receive swift and reliable justice. Another core responsibility is ensuring fairness. In criminal cases, fairness requires that the rights of victims and the accused are respected. It requires that evidence is processed quickly and accurately. And if there is a mistake and an innocent person is wrongly convicted, fairness requires that we have the tools available to correct them.

The bill the Senate passes today, the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, will make our courts more fair. It provides tools to strengthen indigent defense and expand the rights of crime victims. It will improve the use of forensic evidence, including rape kits, to provide justice as swiftly as possible. It will help protect the innocent by increasing access to post-conviction DNA testing. Passage of this bipartisan bill is long overdue, but it is an important step that we celebrate today.

The Justice for All Reauthorization Act builds on the work I began in 2000, when I introduced the Innocence Protection Act. That bill sought to ensure that defendants in the most serious cases receive competent representation and, when appropriate, access to post-conviction DNA testing.

I started my career as a prosecutor in Vermont. I know that we must hold those who commit crimes accountable. But we must also ensure that our system treats the accused fairly and does not wrongly convict those who are not guilty. In some cases, DNA testing can prove the innocence of individuals where the system got it grievously wrong. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a hallmark of our criminal justice system, but when a person who has been found guilty is actually innocent, we must provide access to tools like DNA testing that can set the record straight.

The Innocence Protection Act and the funding it provides for post-conviction DNA testing has played a critical role in helping the innocent clear their names and receive the exonerations they deserve. These cases happen more often than people might think. In the first six months of 2016, at least four people have been exonerated by DNA testing after spending a combined 100 years in prison for crimes they had not committed.

Can you imagine how terrifying it must be to be convicted of a crime you did not commit? You are separated from all that you know and all those you love – perhaps for decades or life. You are housed in a cold, bare prison cell, isolated and scared. And perhaps worst of all, no one believes you when you say you did not do it. The four men exonerated by DNA in just the last few months no doubt experienced that and worse. So did my friend Kirk Bloodsworth.

Kirk was a young man just out of the Marines when, in 1984, he was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 9 year-old girl, a heinous crime he did not commit. He maintained his innocence and finally received a second trial, only to be convicted again, though this time he received two consecutive life sentences. Again, he fought to clear his name, pushing to have the evidence against him tested for DNA, then a novel new scientific method. The DNA found at the crime scene was not his and he was released from prison in 1993. He became the first death row inmate in the United States to be exonerated through the use of DNA evidence.

Kirk inspired me to create the Kirk Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program as part of the Innocence Protection Act in 2000. He continues to be a remarkable champion for justice, and I am proud the grant program we both care so deeply about is reauthorized as part of the bipartisan legislation before us today.

We must continue funding this critical post-conviction DNA testing since we know our system is imperfect. It is an outrage when an innocent person is wrongly punished, and this injustice is compounded when the true perpetrator remains on the streets, able to commit more crimes. We are all less safe when the system gets it wrong.

Of course we must do more to ensure that our justice system gets it right from the beginning and that means improving the quality of indigent defense. This legislation requires the Department of Justice to provide technical assistance to States to improve their indigent defense systems, and it ensures that public defenders will have a seat at the table when States determine how to use their Byrne JAG criminal justice funding. Although these are small changes, I hope they lay the ground work for greater improvements ahead, including adoption of my Gideon’s Promise Act. That legislation would allow the Department of Justice to ensure that States are satisfying their obligations to provide competent counsel under the 6th and 14th Amendments. It has been a part of this bill in previous years but unfortunately does not yet have the support it needs for passage. We must do more to protect this fundamental right and I will continue to work to see the Gideon’s Promise Act passed into law.

In addition to the Innocence Protection Act, the Justice for All Reauthorization Act also increases resources for public forensic laboratories by reauthorizing the Coverdell program. It addresses the needs of sexual assault survivors by ensuring that rape kit backlogs are reduced and forensic exam programs are expanded. It strengthens some key provisions of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. And it expands rights for victims of all crime.

While we still have a long way to go, we have made progress over the years to respond to the needs of sexual assault survivors, and I am glad this legislation continues to build on that strong record. Last Congress, we reauthorized the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Reduction Program, named for my brave friend Debbie Smith who waited for years after being attacked before her rape kit was tested and the perpetrator was caught. I included language in the Leahy-Crapo Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 to increase services and funding for survivors of sexual assault and further reduce the rape kit backlog.

I thank Senator Cornyn for working with me to pass this important legislation today. The programs authorized through the Justice for All Act are a smart use of taxpayer dollars that ensure the integrity of our justice system. Senators who talk about the need to go after criminals and promote public safety should support our legislation, which I hope we can enact into law this year.

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