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February 01, 2012

Senate Judiciary Committee Approves VAWA Bill

The Senate Judiciary Committee, in a party line 10-8 vote Feb. 2, approved an amended version S. 1925, a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act to continue to provide services to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.

The legislation, sponsored by committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Michael Crapo (R-Idaho), would consolidate 13 programs, reduce authorization levels by nearly 20 percent, and add accountability measures to ensure that federal funds are used efficiently and effectively in acknowledgment of difficult economic times.

The authorization level for the Legal Assistance for Victims (LAV) program, currently funded at $41 million, would drop from $65 million to $57 million, but the bill also includes provisions to strengthen the training requirements of those providing legal assistance to victims and allow grantees to recruit, train and mentor pro bono attorneys and law students to assist victims under the act.

Other provisions would ensure access to services through a uniform non-discrimination provision that for the first time would provides inclusive language to ensure that victims seeking assistance cannot be denied services based on gender identity or sexual orientation, as well as race, color, religion, national origin, sex or disability. The bill also includes provisions to strengthen tribal criminal jurisdiction over individuals who assault Native American spouses and dating partners in Indian country.

“VAWA is a critical tool in the arsenal to address domestic and sexual violence,” ABA President Wm T. (Bill) Robinson III wrote to the committee Jan. 31. Robinson, who expressed ABA support for S. 1925, noted recent studies indicating decreases in the number of men and women killed or injured by intimate partners since VAWA was enacted. He also pointed out that studies indicate that incidents of domestic and sexual violence tend to go down when victims have legal representation and when they obtain protection orders. 

He emphasized, however, that domestic violence remains a pressing problem in the United States, citing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released in December revealing that one in five women and one in 71 men have been raped at some time in their lives.

Other statistics show that one in six women and one in 19 men have experienced stalking victimization. In addition, one in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetimes, according to the statistics.

The committee’s partisan vote is in stark contrast to two previous unanimous and voice vote committee approvals of VAWA reauthorization legislation.

Prior to the vote, Leahy attempted to address concerns raised by Republicans by negotiating the substitute amendment that was passed by the committee.

The eight members voting against the bill based their opposition on provisions related to the U Visa program, which gives illegal immigrants who are victims of violent crimes an opportunity to attain legal status if they help or are likely to help law enforcement and government officials. In addition, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) opposed adding the terms “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to the bill, calling the inclusion of those terms unnecessary to ensure that services are provided equally to everyone.

The legislation now moves to the full Senate for consideration.

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