The Justice for All Reauthorization Act (“JFAA”) (S. 822) is a bipartisan bill that the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved last October. On Monday April 7, the U.S. House of Representatives passed one part of the JFAA, the Debbie Smith Reauthorization Act (H.R. 4323), which provides grants to states to reduce evidence backlogs in their crime labs. Unfortunately, the House did not reauthorize a number of the other critical programs that were a part of the original Justice for All Act. The good news is that the Senate has the opportunity to pass the JFAA, which includes all of these important provisions in one legislative package.
As Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Judiciary Committee and lead sponsor of the bill, explains, the bill “strengthens important rights for crime victims, reauthorizes the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program, seeks to improve the quality of indigent defense, and increases access to post-conviction DNA testing to help protect the innocent.” Among the original cosponsors of the bill are five Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and original sponsor Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX).
A critical component of the JFAA, which is missing from the House-passed bill, is the reauthorization of and improvements to programs that increase access to post-conviction DNA testing, a tool that has proven critical to exonerating hundreds of innocent individuals who were wrongfully convicted. In addition to continuing programs that provide grants to states to support such testing, the Act makes it possible for individuals who previously waived their right to DNA testing and pleaded guilty to access federal post-conviction DNA testing. This is critical given that 19 out of the first 250 individuals exonerated by DNA had pleaded guilty despite their innocence.
The Act also increases transparency and accountability for federal funds that support state criminal justice systems by requiring states to submit strategic plans when applying for the grants. Increasing accountability in the administration of the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG) – the largest federal criminal justice grant program – is critical to ensuring that states use this money for cost-effective, evidence-based programs that support all segments of the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, prosecutors, courts and indigent defense.
The bill also empowers the U.S. Attorney General to engage states and localities in efforts to improve their indigent defense systems by providing technical assistance to meet their obligations to provide effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment. Providing the Department of Justice with these resources is a positive first step toward addressing the disturbingly widespread failure of too many states to provide adequate counsel for individuals accused of a crime who cannot afford their own lawyers.
By passing the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, the Senate has the opportunity to continue and strengthen the important programs Congress established when it originally passed the Justice for All Act. Both the Senate and the House should seize this opportunity to improve DNA and other forensic technology, strengthen safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions, and enhance protections for crime victims.