National Crime Victims’ Rights Weekby Senator Patrick J. Leahy
Posted on 2014-04-11
LEAHY. Mr. President, this week we celebrate the 30th annual
National Crime Victims' Rights Week, and the 30th anniversary of the
passage of the Victims of Crime Act. It is a time to recognize the
losses faced by victims of crime and their families, and to acknowledge
the efforts of those who work so hard to ensure the protection and
well-being of crime victims in Vermont and across the nation. It is
also a time to reflect on all that we have accomplished together over
the past three decades, and to focus on what more we must do to support
and protect victims of crime. I have long supported victims of crime
through the Victims of Crime Act, and I was proud to cosponsor the
Senate resolution supporting the mission and goals of National Crime
Victims' Rights Week 2014.
One of our most effective tools to serve and support victims is the Crime Victims Fund. In 1984, the Senate voted to pass the Victims of Crime Act--VOCA--which created the Fund. The Fund is rightfully sustained by criminal fines and penalties, not by taxpayer dollars, and provides funding and support for victim services across the country. These services include funding for victim assistance, and compensation programs to help with medical, funeral, and burial costs, mental health counseling, and lost wages.
In 1996, after the Oklahoma City bombing, I supported the creation of an Antiterrorism Emergency Reserve Fund to support communities in the wake of acts of mass violence. These funds provide emergency relief and assistance in the wake of tragedies that might otherwise overwhelm the resources of the State's crime victim compensation and victim assistance services. That Emergency Reserve Fund has been used to support communities in the aftermath of shootings at Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Newtown, and most recently to cover longer term victim assistance for the marathon bombing victims in Boston. The Office of Victims of Crime also provides funding directly to other federal agencies to support assistance to victims of mass violence and terrorism, including the Department of the Army following the 2011 Fort Hood shooting.
The Crime Victims Fund has a long history of supporting victims of crime. I am grateful that in the Fiscal Year 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, we were able to raise the cap on the Fund by $15 million. This is a historic and hard-won achievement that translates to more money for victims' assistance grants. Yet despite the increase, support for direct victim assistance remains 13 percent behind where funding levels were 15 years ago. As a result, 1.3 million fewer victims today are receiving help funded under VOCA. It is clear that more work remains to be done on behalf of victims of crime.
This year, I led a letter with Senator Crapo requesting that the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee [[Page S2404]] on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies set the cap on obligations from the Fund as high as possible. As States are forced to tighten their belts, victim services are being cut all over the country. Without Federal assistance from this trust fund, victims' compensation programs and victims' assistance programs and services would be unavailable to many.
I am also proud to be the lead sponsor of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, which is another important measure that strengthens crime victims' rights and improves crime victims' services. This bipartisan bill was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 2013 and every Democratic Senator has cleared this bill for immediate passage by the Senate. This is a strong, comprehensive bill that has the support of many Senators, including Senators Cornyn and McConnell. There is no reason that this important bill should not be passed as soon as possible.
This legislation reauthorizes the original Justice for All Act of 2004. The programs created by the Justice for All Act have had an enormous impact, and it is crucial that we reauthorize them. This legislation strengthens key rights for crime victims, reauthorizes the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program, includes provisions to improve the quality of indigent defense, and increases access to post- conviction DNA testing to protect the innocent. It strengthens the rights guaranteed to crime victims in the criminal justice process and ensures that basic services, like the rapid testing of rape kits, help victims receive the justice, safety and closure they deserve. This legislation also increases authorized funding for the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program. This vital program assists forensic laboratories in performing the many forensic tests that are essential to solving crimes and prosecuting those who commit those crimes so that victims have peace of mind knowing that justice will be served. I urge my fellow senators to support the passage of this vital legislation.
I was also extremely proud when the Leahy-Crapo Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 was signed into law last year by President Obama. This is legislation, which I introduced with Senator Crapo, reauthorized the critical Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA. When we enacted VAWA 20 years ago, it sent a powerful message that we will not tolerate crimes against women, and the law forever altered the way our Nation combats domestic and sexual violence. Just as it did nearly 20 years ago, this reauthorization offers support to the victims of these terrible crimes and helps them find safety and rebuild their lives. It was crafted with a great deal of input from victims and the tireless professionals who work to support them every day, and I am grateful for their support and assistance.
The VAWA reauthorization takes responsible and moderate steps, in this case to protect immigrant and Native women, and ensuring services to all victims, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. This legislation also includes new protections to prevent stalking and campus assault. It is particularly fitting to talk about this in April, which is also Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
I am glad that the Senate was able to quickly move on this bipartisan bill and ensure it was passed in a timely manner. The reauthorization of VAWA was approved by the Senate by an overwhelming vote of 78-22. This is an issue that has and should continue to transcend partisanship, and we did just that last year when an overwhelming majority of the Senate voted in favor of VAWA. I hope we can continue to work together to support women's and victims' rights in the future.
This includes supporting the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act, another bipartisan bill that I introduced in March. This legislation represents a comprehensive and commonsense approach toward guaranteeing the effectiveness and scientific integrity of forensic evidence used in criminal cases. It is critical that Americans have faith in their criminal justice system, and this legislation aims to achieve that by promoting national accreditation and certification standards and stronger oversight for forensic labs and practitioners. The Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act ensures that reform efforts will be guided by experts and practitioners with both criminal justice expertise and scientific independence, and it establishes consistent standards in the forensic science disciplines. I am glad to be working with Senator Cornyn on this important effort.
I have always supported and will continue to support victims' rights. As we recognize the horrific losses victims of crimes have endured, it is important that we work towards lessening the effects of these tragedies and help victims can recover and rebuild. I look forward to working with my fellow Senators on both sides of the aisle to ensure that crime victims are never forgotten, and that they have our strong and enduring support.