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Martin and Weinstein: Don’t Let Inaccuracies Derail VAWA Passage

Rates of domestic and sexual violence in the United States have amounted to a crisis that must be urgently addressed. Nearly one in five women has been raped in her lifetime, while one in four women has been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner.

These devastating figures require a strong response — and the immediate reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act is an important first step.

S. 1925 is a strong, bipartisan, filibuster-proof bill that will reauthorize VAWA for another five years and build on effective programs to meet the changing needs of victims. This legislation, introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), has 61 co-sponsors, including eight Republicans. Senate leadership is bringing VAWA to the floor this week, demonstrating Congress’ commitment to ending violence against women and girls.

But many well-intentioned Members of Congress have heard misstatements about VAWA, and opponents are developing an alternative bill that will undercut the spirit of the law. It is imperative that we address these inaccuracies so every Senator understands what VAWA really does in communities across the country and so every Senator can support S. 1925 without harmful amendments.

VAWA saves lives and money — $12.6 billion in its first six years alone. VAWA-funded programs have improved the national response to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. The lion’s share of VAWA funding, about $400 million annually, ends up in local communities supporting law enforcement, prosecution, courts and victim services. Since its passage in 1994, all states have strengthened rape laws and the number of individuals killed by an intimate partner has decreased by 34 percent for women and 57 percent for men.

Critics allege that VAWA grantees misspent millions of dollars and S. 1925 lacks strict accounting policies. But a letter from Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich explains that concerns about the grants in question have been successfully resolved.

Advocacy groups and victim service providers support the bill’s audit provisions, which are almost word for word the accountability provisions developed by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in the Victims of Trafficking Act.

Critics claim the Leahy-Crapo bill gives immigrants a new way to enter the country. However, provisions to protect immigrant victims have been in place since 1994. Any immigrant victim seeking a U visa under VAWA not only must provide evidence of victimization but also must obtain a signed form from a law enforcement officer or prosecutor certifying that the immigrant victim cooperated with officials and assisted in bringing the perpetrator to justice.

Critics claim S. 1925 contains provisions that would force all domestic violence and sexual assault programs to serve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender victims or be charged with discrimination. In reality, S. 1925 has a provision that tells states they may fund services specifically targeted to LGBT victims. These targeted services are badly needed. Only 1.5 percent of all victim services in this country are LGBT-specific, and a majority of victim service providers working with LGBT clients report that their clients have been denied services because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

The Justice Department reports that one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime and that Native American women suffer from violent crime at a rate three and a half times greater than the national average. Yet critics say S. 1925 violates the Constitution by giving tribal courts the authority to punish non-Native Americans for committing domestic violence on tribal lands. In fact, S. 1925 requires that any tribal court exercising jurisdiction over non-Native Americans must show that it offers similar constitutional protections afforded to defendants in state criminal courts.

The passage of S. 1925 sends a strong message to victims throughout the country whose lives have been forever changed: We will never return to the pre-VAWA world where there was no help and no hope. A vote for the Leahy-Crapo reauthorization bill says unequivocally to all victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, “We will help you wherever you are and whenever you need help.”

Patricia Martin is president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Lori Weinstein is executive director of Jewish Women International.

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