The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is one of the pillars of the Federal government’s response to domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. First signed into law in 1994, VAWA authorizes several grant programs to provide services and housing to survivors and training to improve the legal response to gender-based violence. Unfortunately, VAWA expired in February 2019 when partisan fighting over key provisions brought reauthorization efforts to a standstill.
On March 17, 2021, the House passed H.R.1620, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021, introduced by Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-1).
On December 16, a bipartisan group of Senators (Democrats Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein, and Republicans Joni Ernst and Lisa Murkowski) announced they have reached a deal on a VAWA reauthorization framework. We expect them to introduce the Senate bill within the next month. Political realities and the need to clear a 60-vote threshold may result in exclusion or modification of the more contentious provisions in the House bill.
The new VAWA reauthorization framework will maintain existing vital protections for survivors and is expected to:
- Strengthen rape prevention and education efforts and services and protections for young survivors;
- Expand access to emergency housing support for survivors;
- Expand and authorize programs to ensure that VAWA provides access to survivors in rural areas, survivors requiring culturally specific services, LGBT survivors and survivors who seek voluntary, community-based restorative practice services;
- Provide support for legal services funding and trauma-informed law enforcement responses;
- Align the current law with VAWA’s original intent by ensuring that individuals who are convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence against a dating partner are prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms or ammunition (the provision would apply only to protective orders and convictions issued after the VAWA reauthorization’s date of enactment);
- Improve the response to sexual violence, including through grants to promote the training of sexual assault forensic examiners; and
- Build on the 2013 reauthorization to expand special criminal jurisdiction by tribal courts to cover non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault, child abuse co-occurring with domestic violence, stalking, sex trafficking and assaults on tribal law enforcement officers on tribal lands. It also includes an Alaska pilot program which will empower a limited number of Tribes to exercise special criminal jurisdiction over certain crimes that occur in Alaska Native villages.
The ABA House of Delegates adopted resolution 113A at the Association’s annual meeting in 2020 to update ABA policy from 2010 that supports VAWA reauthorization. Resolution 113A is a forward-looking resolution, preserving the hard-fought gains of previous reauthorizations while evolving to respond to emerging and unmet challenges.
The ABA’s policy seeks to ensure that no rollbacks to existing VAWA protections will be made, such as removing nondiscrimination mandates or weakening outreach and services to underserved communities. By taking a trauma-centered approach and following the advice of experts who work to identify and meet the needs of survivors, a balance can be struck between defending the existing statute and being responsive to unmet needs.
The ABA will continue to advocate for reauthorization of VAWA as one of our legislative priorities. Our policy supports proposals that restrict adjudicated abusers’ access to firearms by enforcing existing federal law and by closing the “boyfriend loophole” that enables abusers not married to their victims to evade surrender provisions. ABA policy also supports VAWA pilot programs that would create responsibly crafted, victim-defined innovations to serve as alternatives to criminal justice penalties, as well as acknowledge that survivors have been requesting these alternatives for decades. Finally, the ABA supports expanding the inherent jurisdiction of tribal courts over gender-based violence on tribal lands.
Want more information on VAWA reauthorization or to help the ABA advocate for it? Visit the Grassroots Action Center and register for the Grassroots Action Team here.