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May 01, 2012

Senate passes VAWA reauthorization bill; House action next

The Senate, after rejecting proposals to narrow the scope of Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization legislation, passed the bill April 27 by a 68-31 vote.

The ABA-supported legislation, S. 1925, would extend programs that provide services to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking and has the support of the White House.

The legislation would add uniform non-discrimination provisions to VAWA that for the first time would provide 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 would strengthen tribal criminal jurisdiction over individuals who assault Native American spouses and dating partners in Indian country and would make available previously issued but unused visas to illegal immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse.

During debate on the bill, senators rejected a substitute amendment offered by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) that would have removed the new provisions and, among other things, instituted additional mandatory minimum sentences for certain aggravated sexual assault crimes. The Senate also voted against including an amendment proposed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to require the Justice Department to direct more funds toward reducing the DNA-testing backlog related to rape investigations. Also defeated was a third amendment offered by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) that would have authorized grant funds to be used for DNA backlog testing and allowed grants toward audits of the backlog. The DNA backlog issue is expected to be addressed in separate legislation.

“The Violence Against Women Act has been the single most effective federal effort to respond to the epidemic of domestic violence, dating violence and stalking in this country,” ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III wrote to all senators April 26 in support of S. 1925. Robinson emphasized that reauthorizations in 2000 and 2005 improved the act and that the current bill was carefully crafted to reflect discussion with more than 2,000 advocates and experts across the country.

He also pointed out that the ABA policy adopted in 2008 strongly supports legislation and appropriate funding for strengthening protections and assistance for victims of gender-based violence and for ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable. In February 2012, the association also approved a resolution urging VAWA reauthorization and highlighting the need for legislation that “provides services, protection and justice for underserved and vulnerable victims of violence, including children and youth who are victims or are witnesses to violence, and victims who are disabled, elderly, immigrant, trafficked, LGBT and/or Indian.”

The next step for VAWA reauthorization is consideration in the House, where the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill May 8 that was introduced April 27 by Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.). The bill, H.R. 4970, is similar to the substitute proposed in the Senate by Hutchison.

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