It took a lame-duck session to do it, but Congress has approved one of its most significant pieces of criminal justice legislation during its two-year term that ends this month: the Justice for All Act.
The measure, which had considerable bipartisan support, should help the testing of evidence in rape cases, expand post-conviction DNA testing, strengthen crime victims’ rights, and help states improve their systems to represent poor people in criminal cases.
The Senate approved the bill yesterday after the House okayed it earlier this week, sending the measure to President Obama for his signature. It expands on a law enacted in 2004 during George W. Bush’s presidency.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and a former prosecutor, was a leading sponsor of the bill. He said yesterday that during his many years as a leader of the Judiciary panel, “It has become clear to me that our system is deeply flawed – there is not always justice for all.”
When the bill passed the House on Tuesday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said it provides “law enforcement resources to identify the guilty and free the innocent.”
Other major sponsors were Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Reps. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Jim Costa (D-CA).
The bill ensures that at least least 75 percent of federal funds for handling “rape kits” of evidence submitted by victims will go toward direct testing and not other purposes and offers incentives to states to hire full-time Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, especially in rural and under-served areas.
Crime victims would get more access to restitution funds under the bill.
It also settles disputes involving the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which threatens to cut off federal anticrime aid to states that don’t take sufficient action to protect inmates against sexual assault.
The new law protects aid to states under the separate Violence Against Women Act from being cut in states that don’t comply with PREA. It allows states six years to abide by PREA before their federal funds are cut off, and requires greater transparency from states on the status of their PREA implementation.
The bill renews the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing program, which provides funding to states to help defray costs associated with post-conviction DNA testing.
As described by Leahy, Bloodsworth had recently left the Marines in 1984 when he was falsely convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.
Nearly executed until DNA evidence proved his innocence in 1993, he became the first U.S. death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence. There were 149 people exonerated last year.
Leahy said, “Our justice system failed not only these innocent people but also the victims of crime.”
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of the Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.