Washington — Today, Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (both D-MD) introduced the Witness Security and Protection Grant Program Act of 2015, legislation that directs the U.S. Attorney General to award competitive grants to state and local governments to establish and maintain short-term witness protection programs in cases involving homicides, violent felonies, serious drug offenses, gang related crimes or organized crime.
“Our criminal justice system is not working effectively when prosecutors are forced to choose between funding costly investigations and protecting witnesses,” said Senator Cardin. “This legislation will help ensure that prosecutors in Baltimore and elsewhere around the country at the state and local levels are equipped with the necessary resources to fight this epidemic that is poisoning our communities. Witnesses want to do the right thing and testify, but they need to know that they and their families are safe from harm.”
“With the spikes in homicides we’ve been seeing this year in major cities like Baltimore, securing the safe cooperation of witnesses is more crucial now than ever,” Congressman Cummings said. “Without witnesses who feel safe working with police officers, the wheels of justice will come to a screeching halt. This legislation will help state and local governments provide the specific kinds of services needed to protect witnesses and ensure they feel safe enough to testify in court.”
In January, The Washington Post reported that since 2004, at least 37 people in Washington, D.C. and Maryland have been killed “for cooperating with law enforcement or out of fear that they might [cooperate].”
In August, according to the New York Times, over 30 cities were reporting increases in violence from the year prior, and many large U.S. cities were seeing spikes in murders this year, including Baltimore, Maryland; New Orleans, Louisiana; Washington, D.C.; St. Louis, Missouri; and others. According to the Baltimore Sun, there was a total of 211 homicides in Baltimore in 2014, while the city has already suffered more than 300 homicides in 2015.
Earlier this year, Rashaw Scott, a Baltimore man whose 16-month-old son was fatally shot, refused to cooperate with the investigation and had to be compelled to testify at the trial, illustrating the problems Baltimore law enforcement and prosecutors face in finding willing witnesses.
The Witness Security and Protection Grant Program Act of 2015 would provide $150 million in competitive grants — $30 million a year for five years — to state, local and tribal governments to establish witness assistance programs. The bill also requires the Attorney General to collect data and best practices from the grantees and report this information back to Congress, States and other relevant entities. The Attorney General is also directed to ensure that, as practicable, grants are given to an equitable geographical distribution of programs throughout the country.
Cardin and Cummings introduced similar legislation in the 113th Congress. Cummings has also led House efforts on the bill for more than a decade.