People Op-Ed: Leading Prosecutor Remembers How Violence Against Women Act Saved Lives — and Urges Congress' Support Now

October 5, 2021

This op-ed originally appeared in People on October 5, 2021.

In the early 1990s, I began my 20-plus-year career in government service as a staff member for then-U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden. I was in my mid-20s and eager to learn more about public service when I was assigned to work on the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) — a landmark law that has dramatically changed the way our country protects survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, affecting the lives of countless women in America. Little did I know, it would change my life, as well.

Working on that committee three decades ago, I learned from survivors themselves why America needs the Violence Against Women Act. I read and responded to countless letters from survivors all over the country — mostly women — who wrote in heart-wrenching detail about the brutal violence and excruciating pain that they were suffering at the hands of their intimate partners.

My colleagues and I spent many hours calling staff at rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, emergency rooms and police stations across the country. We learned from them that perpetrators of this violence were not being held accountable. The statistics we gathered from that time period painted a grim picture: 98 percent of rape survivors never saw their attacker caught, tried, and imprisoned — meaning almost all perpetrators of rape walked free. Fewer than half of people arrested for rape were convicted and almost half of convicted rapists could expect to serve a year or less in jail.

The experience taught me a key principle that still guides me today: Our government has a moral obligation to protect its citizens, and when it falls short of doing that, it must listen to those it let down to learn how to do better. Members of Congress understood they needed to take sexual assault and domestic violence seriously and that the criminal justice system needed the necessary tools to hold perpetrators accountable. When VAWA passed overwhelmingly in September of 1994, Congress made clear that protecting women from violence was a national priority and would receive the full weight of the federal government's attention and resources.

My experiences with these survivors solidified my desire to work not just in public service but specifically in law enforcement, criminal justice and public safety. With the passage of VAWA, I saw how a law could make a real difference in people's lives and what Congress could accomplish through thoughtful policy, driven by courageous voices. The bill had sharp teeth: it included strong criminal justice reforms that afforded legal protection and resources to all individuals who were survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. It empowered federal law enforcement authorities to go after perpetrators who crossed state lines to abuse, and even required state courts and law enforcement to enforce protection orders issued by other states — freeing survivors to leave the communities where the abuse had occurred. It strengthened federal penalties for repeat sex offenders and included a federal "rape shield law," which prevented defense attorneys from using victims' past sexual conduct against them during a rape trial.

The bill also placed an emphasis on a coordinated community-based response to domestic violence and encouraged actors in the criminal justice system to work with survivors and their advocates to find solutions. It provided legal relief for battered immigrants and created the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which remains a vital resource today. And for the first time, the original VAWA provided critical federal funding to ensure that those who touch the lives of survivors — everyone from law enforcement to social services — have access to programs that provide the right tools and training.

When VAWA was passed with overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats, it helped change the national conversation around sexual assault and domestic violence. It raised awareness of the problem and made clear that these crimes affect more than the immediate victim — they take a toll on children, on families and on our communities. In the years since, Congress has renewed the law three times with strong support from both sides of the political aisle, each time strengthening it to address current challenges. But the law was last renewed in 2013, and we have seen an uptick in domestic violence as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his fiscal year 2022 budget, President Biden requested an historic investment of $1 billion for VAWA programs and it is clear, that now more than ever, we need this level of funding to meet today's challenges.

This year, a key priority of the Department of Justice is to reduce domestic violence homicides through federal firearms laws. Currently, if a couple is married or living together and one of them is convicted of domestic abuse, the law prohibits the perpetrator from owning a firearm. But if the couple is not living together or if they do not have children together, and one of them is convicted of abuse, the so-called "boyfriend loophole" means that there is no such prohibition on the perpetrator. This loophole leaves countless victims at risk and, as the president has made clear, we must close it.

Other top priorities this year are aimed at making sure that all survivors can access the vital support services funded by VAWA and empower American Indian and Alaska Native tribes to protect their own communities from widespread domestic and sexual violence by recognizing their authority to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators who commit crimes in tribal territory, including child abuse and sexual assault.

Finally, we need this year's bill to further invest in the vital VAWA grant programs that train law enforcement how to respond to survivors knowledgeably and compassionately in sexual assault or domestic violence situations. When survivors of this type of horrific violence take the courageous step of coming forward to report their abuse, they must be met with competent and compassionate professionals who have the resources, training, and institutional support to do their jobs well.

In recent weeks, the nation's attention has been captured by several high-profile cases of sexual assault and domestic violence. As the tragic killing of Gabby Petito stays at the forefront of many of our minds, we cannot forget that Gabby is not alone — there are more than 89,000 missing persons cases in this country, almost half of them involving people of color, including the many missing and murdered indigenous persons. Too often, these cases do not receive public attention; for every name we recognize, there are thousands of others equally deserving of our concern and our protection. The Department of Justice will continue to work with state, local and tribal law enforcement partners to prevent these tragedies and bring justice to victims and survivors.

On Tuesday morning, I will return to the Senate Judiciary Committee to address the Violence Against Women Act again. This time, it will not be as a junior staffer helping to create it. Rather, I will return as the deputy attorney general of the United States to urge Congress to once again renew it. But one thing will remain the same: I am honored to be working on behalf of victims and survivors, without whose courage this law never would have been possible.

 

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