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Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011--Motion to Proceed

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. CORNYN. Madam President, I know we have not yet concluded the postal reform bill, but I come to the floor to speak on an amendment I intend to offer on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The amendment I intend to offer is one that enjoys bipartisan support, and I hope as more Senators learn about the content of this amendment and how it will strengthen the Violence Against Women Act, they will join me and Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, Senator Bennet of Colorado, as well as Senator Vitter from Louisiana. I believe it will strengthen the Violence Against Women Act we will vote on, presumably later today, but probably tomorrow.

I am also happy to have the support of the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network--RAINN--PROTECT, and the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, as well as Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed, whose office is in San Antonio, TX. She has worked with us on this amendment, and we have benefited from her counsel and that of her staff. We have the support as well of San Antonio Police Chief William McManus.

At its core, this amendment would help end the nationwide rape kit backlog while improving law enforcement tools to crack down on violent criminals who target women and children for sexual assault.

To give a little context, in the course of an investigation, law enforcement officials will collect DNA evidence in something called a rape kit. These are generally bodily fluids that can be tested, because of their DNA signature, against a bank of DNA evidence for a match. In fact, this is a very powerful tool for law enforcement because it will literally identify someone from this DNA match in a way nothing else can. This DNA evidence can also, for those who care, as we all do, about making sure the innocent are not held in suspicion or convicted for crimes they didn't commit, be so powerful as to literally exclude, in some instances, suspects of criminal conduct.

The nationwide rape kit backlog is a national scandal--one that many people don't know very much about--and it has serious consequences for sexual assault victims. The truth is we don't know about the full scope of the problem, but one estimate is there are as many as 400,000 untested rape kits currently sitting in labs and on police station shelves across the Nation, each one of them holding within itself the potential to help solve a serious crime and, in the process, take a rapist off the streets and provide a victim with the justice they deserve.

Take, for example, the case of Carol Bart. Carol is from Dallas, TX. In 1984, Ms. Bart was kidnapped and raped at knife point outside her Dallas apartment. Although she submitted herself for rape kit testing immediately following the crime, her kit was not tested until 2008--24 years later. When it was tested 24 years after the rape kit specimens were collected, it yielded a match for a serial sex offender who had attempted to rape another woman only 4 months later after he raped Ms. Bart.

This is one of the most important reasons why this evidence is important, because the fact is people who commit sexual assaults are not one-time offenders. They do it many times, and often they do it until they are caught.

But because the rape kit in Ms. Bart's case was not tested for 24 years after the crime, the statute of limitations had run, meaning that her attacker could not be brought to justice for that particular crime.

Statutes of limitations serve a worthwhile purpose under ordinary circumstances. They are designed to make sure charges are brought on a timely basis, while witnesses' memories are fresh and they can identify the perpetrator and the like. But in this instance, what it concealed was an injustice because, in fact, this late testing--24 years after the fact--meant her attacker could not be brought to justice for that particular crime.

Take also the case of Helena Lazaro, who was raped outside of Los Angeles in 1996 when she was just a teenager. Ms. Lazaro's rape kit sat untested for more than 13 years after her assault. When it was finally tested in 2009, it yielded a match to a repeat offender who had raped several women at knifepoint in Indiana and Ohio.

There are countless, I am sorry to say, examples of similar tragedies across the country, only a handful of which are actually reported on the front pages of our major newspapers. And some of these victims, of course, have merely suffered in silence in towns and communities across our country.

One thing is clear: While DNA evidence is powerful evidence, we have not yet adapted our administration of testing nor the capacity to inventory these kits in a way to make sure they are tested on a timely basis, and we have not kept up with that. But that is what this amendment hopes to do.

According to a 2011 report by the National Institute of Justice:

[c]urrent Federal programs to reduce backlogs in crime laboratories are not designed to address untested evidence stored in law enforcement agencies.

As a matter of fact, one of the problems in requiring an inventory of these untested rape kits is often the National Institute of Justice and law enforcement personnel don't even categorize a rape kit as untested until it actually is in the hands of the laboratory. So many of them sit in evidence lockers, never making their way to the labs, and are not identified as backlogged. So there are two distinct types of rape kit backlogs: the well-known backlog of untested rape kits that have already been submitted for testing and the hidden backlog of kits in law enforcement storage that have not been submitted for testing, as you can see, sometimes over a span of 13 years in one case and 24 years in the next. This amendment would help us learn more about this hidden backlog and ultimately help State and local law enforcement officials to end it.

One of my experiences during the 4 years I was attorney general of Texas was that many local jurisdictions simply did not have the expertise or experience or the knowledge to deal with new technology, whether it is Internet crimes or whether it is this new, powerful DNA tool. It is not so new now, and in urban areas it is not as big of a problem. In New York City, for example, I am sure they are quite sophisticated when dealing with this sort of evidence but less so in smaller towns and communities across the country.

The justice for victims amendment would reserve 7 percent of existing Debbie Smith Act grant funding for the purpose of helping State and local governments to conduct audits of their rape kit backlogs. In my hometown of San Antonio, the police department recently conducted such an audit of their evidence storage facilities using similar grant funding from the State of Texas. They identified more than 5,000--and that is just in San Antonio alone--untested sexual assault kits, of which 2,000 they determined should be submitted promptly for testing. My amendment would use existing appropriations to encourage more audits like this.

The amendment would also add accountability to the audit process by requiring grantees of these funds to upload critical information about the size, scope, and status of their backlog into a new sexual assault evidence forensic registry. This valuable information would also help the National Institute of Justice better target the approximately $100 million of existing appropriations already available for this type of testing. In the spirit of open government, the amendment would also require the Department of Justice to publish aggregate, non-personally identifying information about the rape kit backlog on an appropriate Internet Web site.

To ensure that these audit grants do not take resources away from actual testing, my amendment would increase the amount of Debbie Smith Act appropriations required to be spent directly on laboratory testing from the 40 percent currently in the underlying Leahy bill, which will be the base bill, to 75 percent. So what it will do is it will actually take more of the funding that Congress intended be used to process rape kits and do actual testing and return it to that core function.

A comprehensive approach to crime prevention and victims' rights also requires updated tools for Federal law enforcement officials to target fugitives and repeat offenders. My amendment addresses this need by including bipartisan language authored by Senator Jeff Sessions that would authorize the U.S. Marshals Service to issue administrative subpoenas for the purpose of investigating unregistered sex offenders and would actually be limited to that narrow purpose. This provision would allow the Marshals Service to swiftly obtain time-sensitive tracking information, such as rent records and credit card statements, without having to go through the grand jury process, which may or may not be necessary depending on the circumstances. Such authority is urgently needed given the long and complicated paper trail that fugitive sex offender investigations often entail.

My amendment would also guarantee that we hand down tough punishments--appropriately so--to some of the worst crimes against women and children. For example, it includes enhanced sentencing provisions for aggravated domestic violence resulting in death or life-threatening bodily injury to the victim, aggravated sexual abuse, and child sex trafficking. I think preventing these horrible crimes is at the heart of the purpose of the Violence Against Women Act, and we should take the opportunity to improve the underlying bill by adopting this amendment and send a message to would-be perpetrators and child sex traffickers. If you commit some of the worst crimes imaginable in the United States, you should have the certain knowledge that you will be tracked down and that you will receive tough and appropriate punishment.

Finally, thanks to the great work of Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, my amendment would further shed light on one of

the greatest scourges of our time; that is, child prostitution and the trafficking that goes along with it.

The so-called adult entertainment section of the popular online classified Web site backpage.com is nothing more than a front for pimps and child sex traffickers. A lot has been written in the New York Times on this topic. On this Web site, young children and coerced women are openly advertised for sale in the sex trade. In fact, this Web site has been affirmatively linked to dozens of cases of child sex trafficking. Let me give a few recent examples.

Last month, Ronnie Leon Tramble was sentenced to 15 years in prison for interstate sex trafficking through force, fraud, and coercion. Tramble forced more than five young women and minors into prostitution over a period of at least 5 years throughout the State of Washington. He repeatedly subjected his victims to brutal physical and emotional abuse during this time, while using backpage.com to facilitate their prostitution.

In February of this year, Leighton Martin Curtis was sentenced to 30 years in prison for sex trafficking of a minor and production of child pornography. Curtis pimped a 15-year-old girl throughout Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. He prostituted the girl to approximately 20 to 35 customers per week for more than a year and used backpage.com to facilitate these crimes.

According to human trafficking experts, a casual review of the backpage.com adult entertainment Web site reveals literally hundreds of children being sold for sex every day. This is absolutely sickening and should be stopped with all the tools available to us. We should no longer stand idle while thousands of children and trafficked women are raped, abused, and sold like chattel in modern-day slavery on the Internet. My amendment would therefore join all 50 State attorneys general in calling on backpage.com to remove the adult entertainment section of its Web site. Again, I would like to thank Senator Kirk for his leadership on this issue. Every case of sex trafficking or forced prostitution is modern-day slavery--nothing more, nothing less--and we should do everything in our power to ensure this practice is eradicated in the United States of America.

I believe the justice for victims amendment would reduce the rape kit backlog, take serial perpetrators off the street, and ultimately reduce the number of victims of sex violence. I ask my colleagues to join me in considering this amendment, which already enjoys bipartisan support, and I hope it will get much broader bipartisan support. I hope my colleagues will join with me in strengthening the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act by cosponsoring and supporting this amendment. Our constituents and victims of these heinous crimes deserve nothing less.

I yield the floor.

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