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Statements On Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

By Mr. LEAHY (for himself and Mr. CORNYN):

S. 822. A bill to protect crime victims' rights, to eliminate the substantial backlog of DNA samples collected from crime scenes and convicted offenders, to improve and expand the DNA testing capacity of Federal, State, and local crime laboratories, to increase research and development of new DNA testing technologies, to develop new training programs regarding the collection and use of DNA evidence, to provide post conviction testing of DNA evidence to exonerate the innocent, to improve the performance of counsel in State capital cases, and for other purposes; to the Committee on the Judiciary.

Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, today, I am proud to introduce the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2013. The Justice for All Act, originally enacted in 2004, was an unprecedented bipartisan piece of criminal justice legislation. It was the most significant step Congress had taken in many years to improve the quality of justice in this country. I am pleased to be joined this year by Senator Cornyn as an original cosponsor of this legislation. I know that Senator Cornyn shares my commitment to ensuring public confidence in the integrity of the American justice system.

It is fitting that we introduce this bill now, during Crime Victims' Rights week, as we honor the victims of crime across the country, and reaffirm our commitment to seeking justice on their behalf. That commitment feels particularly important now, in light of this year's horrific events in Boston and Newtown. Nothing can eliminate the pain inflicted by those tragedies, but we can work together to ensure that the needs of those families are met so that they can find healing and begin to rebuild their lives.

This legislation takes important steps to strengthen rights for victims of crime. For example, it establishes an affirmative right to be informed of their rights under the Crime Victims' Rights Act and other key laws, and it takes several steps to make it easier for crime victims to assert those rights in court.

In addition to being Crime Victims' Rights Week, today is National DNA Day and it is appropriate to acknowledge the power DNA testing has had in improving our criminal justice system. One example of that impact has been in the testing of rape kits. This legislation reauthorizes the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Reduction Act, which has provided significant funding to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits so that victims need not live in fear while kits languish in storage. That program is named after Debbie Smith who waited years after being attacked before her rape kit was tested and the perpetrator was caught. She and her husband Rob have worked tirelessly to ensure that others will not experience the ordeal she went through. I thank Debbie and Rob for their continuing help on this extremely important cause.

The legislation also includes significant measures to improve the administration of justice in our courts, including the use of post-conviction DNA testing. The bill is built on the work I began in 2000, when I introduced the Innocence Protection Act, which sought to ensure that defendants in the most serious cases receive competent representation and, where appropriate, access to post-conviction DNA testing necessary to prove their innocence in those cases where the system got it grievously wrong.

The Innocence Protection Act became a key component of the Justice for All Act. The act also included vital provisions to ensure that crime victims would have the rights and protections they need and deserve and that States and communities would take major steps to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits and ensure prompt justice for victims of sexual assault. These and other important criminal justice provisions made the Justice for All Act a groundbreaking achievement in criminal justice reform.

The programs created by the Justice for All Act have had an enormous impact, and it is crucial that we reauthorize them. Unfortunately, it is clear that simply reauthorizing the existing law is not enough. Significant problems remain, and we must work together to address them.

In the years since the Justice for All Act passed, we have seen too many cases of people found to be innocent after spending years in jail. A California man, Brian Banks, was exonerated after spending five years in prison for a rape he did not commit. He recently signed with the Atlanta Falcons and will realize his dream of playing professional football. Brian's story had a happy ending, but too many wrongly convicted people are not as lucky. It is an outrage when an innocent person is 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.

To that end, this legislation strengthens the Kirk Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program, one of the key programs created in the Innocence Protection Act. Kirk Bloodsworth was a young man just out of the Marines when he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for a heinous crime that he did not commit. He was the first person in the United States to be exonerated from a death row crime through the use of DNA evidence.

This program provides grants to States for testing in cases like Kirk's where someone has been convicted, but where significant DNA evidence was not tested. The last administration resisted implementing the program for several years, but we worked hard to see the program put into place. Now, money has gone out to a number of States, and is having an impact. The legislation we introduce today clarifies the conditions set for this program so that participating States are required to preserve key evidence, which is crucial, but are given further guidance about how to do so in a way that is attainable and will allow more states to participate.

This legislation takes important steps to ensure that all criminal defendants, including those who cannot afford a lawyer, receive effective representation. It requires the Department of Justice to assist States in developing an effective and efficient system of indigent defense. I know as a former prosecutor, that the system only works as it should when each side is well represented by competent and well-trained counsel. Fifty years after the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, it is past time to ensure that all criminal defendants have effective representation before government authority takes away their liberty.

The bill also asks States to produce comprehensive plans for their criminal justice systems, which will help to ensure that criminal justice systems operate effectively as a whole and that all parts of the system work together and receive the resources they need.

The bill reauthorizes and improves key grant programs in a variety of areas throughout the criminal justice system. Importantly, it increases authorized funding for the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant program, which is a vital program to assist forensic laboratories in performing the many forensic tests that are essential to solving crimes and prosecuting perpetrators.

In these times of tight budgets, it is important to note that this bill would make all of these improvements while responsibly reducing the total authorized funding under the Justice For All Act and that many of these changes will help States, communities, and the Federal Government save money in the long term.

I thank the many law enforcement and criminal justice organizations that have helped to pinpoint the needed improvements that this law attempts to solve and I appreciate their ongoing support in seeing it passed.

Today, we rededicate ourselves to building a criminal justice system in which the innocent remain free, the guilty are punished, and all sides have the tools, resources, and knowledge they need to advance the cause of justice. Americans need and deserve a criminal justice system which keeps us safe, ensures fairness and accuracy, and fulfills the promise of our constitution. This bill will take important steps to bring us closer to that goal.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the RECORD.

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