Press Release

February 25, 2010

Washington, DC – With an overwhelming 18-1 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee today passed legislation to improve state and local witness protection. The Senate substitute to H.R. 1741, the Witness Security and Protection Grant Program Act, was sponsored by U.S. Senators Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Arlen Specter (D-PA), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Congressman Elijah Cummings (MD-7) sponsored the legislation in the House of Representatives.

Through the development of new grant and assistance programs, this legislation seeks to give state and local governments the resources they need to protect those individuals who are willing to come forward. The Witness Security and Protection Grant Program Act passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 412-11. It received wide bipartisan support. Senate Democrats and Republicans have worked together to make some positive changes to the legislation.

“Our criminal justice system is not working effectively when prosecutors are forced to choose between funding costly investigations and protecting witnesses. The only winners are criminals, leaving good families like the Dawson’s in Baltimore, who tried to do the right thing by cleaning up their neighborhood, to pay the ultimate price,” said Senator Cardin. “This legislation will help ensure that state and local prosecutors and other law enforcement officials are equipped with the necessary resources to fight this epidemic that is poisoning our communities. I was proud today to see bipartisan support on this issue. We must all take concrete actions to counter witness intimidation and violence because it will only continue to stifle truth and justice.”

“It is wonderful that the Senate has moved this bill along the process,” said Congressman Cummings. “I am eager to stand beside President Obama as he signs it into law. There is a culture among young people and many areas that are beset by violent crime, that “snitching” is dishonorable. Nothing could be further from the truth. We must have the ability to protect those who are willing to make their communities safer, by reporting crimes and helping bring those responsible to justice. Without the cooperation of the public, it is impossible for law enforcement to effectively do its job. This bill will go a long way toward protecting witnesses so that they might provide that much needed cooperation.”

“We all have a clear interest in protecting witnesses to crimes. Witnesses who are willing to stand up in court and testify about a violent crime in their community are among our most courageous citizens. Often, they are literally willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of justice. The least we can do is protect them from the criminals who want to harm them,” Senator Schumer said.

“Witness intimidation is a very serious problem in Philadelphia’s criminal justice system and in big cities across the nation,” Specter said. “The federal witness protection program is an excellent one and we ought to be helping the states achieve the same objective by providing adequate funding. Today the Judiciary Committee took an important step forward by overwhelmingly passing bipartisan legislation that gives the Attorney General authority to issue substantial grants to communities for witness protection efforts over the next five years.”

The Witness Security and Protection Grant Program Act would require the Attorney General to make competitive grants to state and local governments to establish and maintain short term witness protection programs in cases involving homicide, serious violent felony, or a serious drug offense. The bill would also authorize assistance to state and local programs from U.S. Marshals Service, which protects witnesses as part of the Federal Witness Security Program.

The bill also requires the Attorney General to collect data and develop best practices (witness safety, short-term, and permanent witness relocation, and financial and housing assistance) from the grantees and report this information back to Congress, States and other relevant entities.

This bill would provide $150 million in competitive grants over five years to state and local governments to establish witness assistance programs. [Note: Grants are $30 million a year for five years]. The Attorney General is directed to ensure that, as practicable, grants are given to an equitable geographical distribution of programs throughout the country.

The Dawson Family of Baltimore City – mother Angela, 36, father Carnell, 43, Lawanda Ortiz, 14, Juan Ortiz 12, Carnell Jr, 10, and twins Kevin and Keith, 9 — was killed in a house fire in 2002. Carnell and Angela worked to clean up their neighborhood in East Baltimore, refusing to allow drug dealers to “run [them] from their neighborhood.” They were set to testify against a neighbor who had thrown a brick and Molotov cocktail through their kitchen window.