Bipartisan legislation would strengthen victim rights, reduce rape kit backlog

(Courtesy: West Midlands Police Dept.)

The Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2016 would reduce rape kit backlog and provide forensic labs with improved post-conviction DNA testing, according to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn who introduced the bill to Congress last week.

Cornyn and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy and U.S. Representatives Ted Poe of Texas and Jim Costa of California introduced the bipartisan legislation to build on the 2004 Justice for All Act.

The 2016 act would strengthen crime victims’ rights and programs by increasing access to restitution. It would reauthorize programs used to notify crime victims that they have the right to legal assistance and to be heard in court, a joint press release states.

“The Justice for All Act has increased law enforcement resources, protected the innocent from wrongful convictions, and helped deliver justice for victims across the country,” Cornyn said. “Reauthorizing this important piece of legislation will continue to provide victims with the support necessary to restore their lives, and continue to give law enforcement the tools to put more criminals behind bars.”

The bill receives support from the Innocent Project, a New York-based nonprofit organization dedicated to using DNA to release wrongly convicted prisoners.

The National Registry of Exonerations currently lists almost 1,800 exonerations since 1989, 337 of which were based primarily on DNA.

In approximately half of the DNA cases, the true perpetrator went on to commit additional serious crimes before being identified. Additionally, 2015 was the third straight record-setting year for the number of exonerations in the U.S., with 149 occurring.

“This bill would help improve public safety and accountability by reauthorizing important, evidence-based criminal justice system programs which have led to many exonerations, including those that have identified real perpetrators of crime,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project.

Among its components, the legislation would reauthorize the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which has led to the exoneration of 28 wrongfully convicted persons, Scheck said in a statement.

It would also reauthorize the Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Program, which supports capacity of crime labs to process forensic evidence while helping to ensure crime lab accountability.

The bill seeks to improve the administration of criminal justice programs by increasing accountability for federal funds and requiring the Justice Department to assist state and local governments to improve their indigent defense systems.

Additionally, it reinforces provisions of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Leahy said the post-conviction testing would help to build confidence in the justice system that has been tainted with DNA scandals. It would also send a message to current law authorities and forensic labs that the government supports their efforts.

“As a former prosecutor, I have great faith in our criminal justice system and in the men and women who have dedicated their lives to making it work,” Leahy said.

The Justice for All Act helped to exonerate innocent criminals and he said he hopes this act will build on

that legislation.

“Dozens of exonerations made possible by the Justice for All Act are testament enough to its value,” Leahy said. “It is past time for Congress to reauthorize this vital law to ensure that law enforcement and crime victims have the resources they need and that our justice system serves us all.”

The reinforcement and funding to improve DNA testing is one of the most important aspects of the bill, Poe said.

“The 2004 Justice for All Act took a big step forward in increasing resources devoted to DNA and other forensic technology,” Poe said. “As a former prosecutor and judge and co-chair of the Victims’ Rights Caucus, I have had personal experience working with victims of crime whose lives and families’ lives have been torn apart.”

Costa, the co-chair of the Congressional Victim’s Rights Caucus, said the victim assistance support would help those faced with domestic violence and bolster child advocacy services.

“From providing vital resources for forensic testing to reducing the rape kit backlog and improving the safety of our prisons, this bipartisan legislation supports victims of crime, law enforcement, and the courts,” Costa said.

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