Contemplation of Justice, U.S. Supreme Court

Q&A: Victims’ Rights

Q: What drives your commitment to strengthen victims’ rights?

A: The principle that “justice is blind” is symbolized in the public square with statues of Lady Justice gracing courthouses across the land. Her eyes are blindfolded, and she holds the scales of justice to represent the ideal that the rule of law is to be applied without regard to wealth, power or prestige. Too often, however, victims of crime in America feel the pendulum swings away from their rights.

I have joined forces with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to shine a spotlight on victims’ rights and to leverage the legislative and oversight authority of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The ultimate goal is to help ensure that the voices of victims of elder abuse, human trafficking, sexual violence, sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, and criminal offenses committed by illegal immigrants are heard.

One of the 30 bipartisan measures approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee during my tenure as chairman is known as the Survivors’ Bill of Rights. Enacted only last year, it ensures that victims of federal crimes of sexual assault can no longer be denied or charged a fee for forensic exams. It also provides that sexual assault evidence rape kits be preserved without charge to the victim for the statutory limitations or at least 20 years. Empowering survivors of sexual violence is the right thing to do and I applaud the courage of those whose advocacy helped advance these new rights for victims of sexual assault.

Q: How else are you working to advance victims’ rights in this Congress?

A: From my perspective, strengthening victims’ rights ought to be an issue that unites all Americans who desire safe schools, safe neighborhoods and safe homes for their loved ones and family members. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I will continue to raise public awareness for the rights of Americans harmed by violence, including sexual and domestic violence, elder abuse and human trafficking. We need to continue strengthening outreach and services for crime survivors and improve enforcement of the laws protecting citizens and the criminal justice system’s response to violence and assault. Consider the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA). This federal law has served victims of crime for more than 20 years. Federal dollars authorized by VAWA support community-based programs that provide critical services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. Rape crisis centers and domestic abuse shelters around the country provide a lifeline as well as life-saving services in communities, neighborhoods and campuses around the country. As the White House prepares its budget proposal for the next fiscal year, I recently sent a bipartisan letter to the president to signal that Congress supports continued federal funding to help local communities and advocates provide emergency shelters, legal assistance and counseling to victims of abuse.

Earlier this year I also reintroduced the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act. This bill is a response to the widespread fraud and scams targeting senior citizens that were disclosed at a 2016 Judiciary Committee hearing that I convened. The bill helps improve collaboration, enforcement, and awareness to make society a safer place for loved ones who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. The Judiciary Committee approved the measure last month without a single dissenting vote, and I will continue to fight for its enactment.

I recently joined forces with Senator Dianne Feinstein to develop a bill that would extend the statutory period in which child victims of crimes of sexual violence can file suit against the perpetrators. Over the coming weeks, I also plan to reintroduce the “Adam Walsh Child Protection Reauthorization Act,” which makes federal resources available to ensure that law enforcement officials have the resources necessary to track convicted sexual predators who go missing from the system and fail to register with law enforcement. Finally, our committee has held hearings on the issue of human trafficking, and I am currently working on legislation to extend key provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act that fall under the Judiciary Committee’s jurisdiction.

What’s more, I’m pleased the president announced additional support for American victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. In his first several weeks, the president announced he would create an office within the Department of Homeland Security to work exclusively to help these crime victims and their families. This new office, known as the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE), sends a signal to all Americans that the U.S. justice system will serve law-abiding citizens victimized by violence perpetrated by people who also broke our federal immigration laws. Victims of crime deserve answers and they deserve justice. America is a nation of laws and our federal government must uphold and enforce these laws to protect public safety and empower citizens to pursue life, liberty and happiness.