ABA President Laurel Bellows expressed strong support this month for reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), an effort she said will “renew proven and effective programs that support victims of domestic, sexual, stalking and dating violence and their families.”
VAWA, first enacted in 1994, expired in 2011, and a push to reauthorize the act during the 112th Congress failed after the Senate and House passed different versions of reauthorization legislation.
Quick passage was expected in the Senate, which began consideration Feb. 7 of S. 47, sponsored this year by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Michael D. Crapo (R-Idaho). Similar legislation, H.R. 11, was introduced in the House by Reps. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.).
The legislation, in addition to consolidating and reauthorizing programs, includes provisions for the first time to ensure that victims seeking assistance could not be denied services based on gender identity or sexual orientation, as well as race, color, religion, national origin or disability.
Both bills also include provisions to strengthen tribal criminal jurisdiction over individuals who assault Native American spouses and dating partners in Indian country. Also part of the bills are provisions to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits to provide for additional audits and reporting and increase the capacity of state and local law enforcement to perform DNA analysis.
Leahy noted in his remarks on the Senate floor that S. 47 does not include provisions from last Congress to increase the number of U Visas available for undocumented victims who assist law enforcement. The House objected to the provisions last year because of revenue issues, and Leahy indicated that U Visas would be addressed in the context of comprehensive immigration reform.
In Jan. 30 letters to the Senate and House sponsors and a Feb. 6 letter to all senators, Bellows pointed out the ABA’s longstanding support for efforts to address domestic, sexual and stalking violence and that the legal profession fulfills an important role in addressing these crimes. The ABA Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence, she said, has increased access to justice for victims by mobilizing the legal profession.
She urged senators to vote against any amendments that would weaken the legislation.
In separate correspondence Feb. 5 to the Senate sponsors, ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman urged them to keep the bill free of mandatory sentencing provisions.
“As much as we support effective penalties to punish and deter the domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking offenses in S. 47, we do not believe that including mandatory minimum sentencing provisions is necessary, appropriate or cost-effective,” Susman wrote. “In fact, these provisions could be counterproductive in combatting violence,” he said, explaining that the threat of a lengthy, mandatory prison sentence for an intimate partner abuser could deter a victim from reporting a crime.
He concluded that “more mandatory minimum sentences would only increase the burdens on and high costs of our already overcrowded federal prison system.”