State lawmakers are considering legislation that encourages witnesses to cooperate more with police. The bill that already passed the House would provide more funding to protect, and in some cases, relocate witnesses of gang-related crimes.
Illinois State Representative Chris Welch (7th district) sponsored the bill. Welch said a better witness protection program would help break the code of silence that exists in some communities.
“In the Chicagoland area we had over 500 murders last year... many of those were gang related,” Welch said. “We have to make getting rid of gang violence in our community a priority.”
Law enforcement officials say their investigations are often hampered by witnesses who are reluctant to testify. Yet some programs designed to coax them into working with prosecutors can barely keep up with demand.
“I could double the staff and keep everybody busy all the time,” said Lori Smith, head of Cook County’s victim witness assistance unit. “Every year funding shrinks and we are always subject to what’s going to happen with the county budget.”
Smith said last year the unit had 52 employees handling about 13,000 cases.
According to the State’s Attorney’s office, about $175,000 was budgeted this year for Cook County’s current witness relocation program. But only roughly half is used for relocation. The other funds go to cover meals, babysitters, and transportation for certain witnesses and victims who would not be able to be in court otherwise.
But the bill’s co-sponsor, State Representative Rita Mayfield (60th district), said funding shouldn’t get in the way of protecting witnesses.
“You know to tell somebody who’s witnessed a violent crime ‘Thank you for coming in and telling us, Your court date is three months away. Go ahead and act like nothings happened. Oh and don’t worry about that retaliation when they come shooting through your windows’...that's not the answer,” Mayfield said.
If the bill passes, police officers and State’s Attorneys could apply for the funding. The Illinois Criminal Justice Authority would fund it with grants.
A similar witness protection program was launched in 1996 and administered by the Illinois State Police. The state appropriated $666,000 for the Gang Crime Witness Protection pilot program, but two years later the program was eliminated due to lack of funding.