WASHINGTON — Senate Judiciary Committee members on Tuesday called for the Violence Against Women Act to be reauthorized but with several additions to strengthen protections for diverse communities and speed up analyses of DNA.
The original 1994 law provided federal funds for domestic violence shelters and for training the police on responding to such violence. The act was amended to include immigrant, LGBTQ and Native American populations in 2013. Members of both the House and Senate have been advocating for a reauthorization of the act, which will expire soon.
Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the committee is writing legislation to update and extend VAWA, which will expand the Justice Department’s DNA backlog reduction program and funding for programs like transitional housing. He said these programs are the “centerpiece” of the legislation.
“I’m troubled by a reported explosion in unanalyzed sexual assault evidence, which has occurred at the same time that Congress has devoted more than a billion dollars to DNA backlog reduction,” Grassley said.
The top Democrat on the Committee, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, added that reauthorizing VAWA is especially important now more than ever in the midst of the #MeToo movement.
“[The #MeToo movement] has shown us how widespread sexual harassment and sexual violence is in our society,” she said. “It’s within this backdrop that it’s vitally important to discuss the strides we have made under VAWA to protect all survivors.”
Katharine Sullivan, the director of the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, said there has been an increase in reported cases of sexual assault and domestic violence since VAWA’s enactment in 1994. She said the increase is a direct result of the $7.6 billion for programs that support survivors since 1994.
Feinstein also said the rate of domestic violence has decreased by 63 percent between 1994 and 2012.
“These programs work,” she said. However, several senators criticized VAWA in its current state for not serving all domestic abuse survivors.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said VAWA’s definition of “Indian” and “tribe” only includes members of federally recognized tribes and excludes some native Hawaiian organizations.
“Survivors are more inclined to seek services from organizations that are familiar with their culture, language and background,” she said. “In 2013 when VAWA was reauthorized I worked to get provisions inserted that I hoped would help native Hawaiian organizations working to combat domestic violence become eligible for grants through the tribal coalition program.”
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said VAWA does not do enough to protect and aide incarcerated women. He said there is a “dramatic link” between survivors of sexual violence and the pipeline directly to prison.
“The trauma that comes from being a survivor of sexual assault … is compounded when you’re put in environments that are also violent,” he said.