In the United States, some victims and witnesses of violent crime face real dangers for cooperating with the criminal justice system and this fact severely limits the ability of the criminal justice system to prevent crime. This is demonstrated by the results of a relatively large study of young people affected by crime in Massachusetts. In this study, one-third of youth had heard of threats against classmates or neighbors in response to reporting gang crime and only half of youth who had been exposed to gang crime had told anyone. . Furthermore, of the young people who told someone about it, only 13% reported the crime to the police. Importantly, this study found that young people were unlikely to report these crimes to the police if they feared retaliation for reporting them or if they did not have access to a police officer they trusted. In another study of 98 men who had been incarcerated for a gun-related crime in Chicago and who said they had been shot in the past, 39% knew who had shot them. Yet of those 38 men, 33 did not tell the police about the shooting. Based on these findings, it’s no surprise that clearing and conviction rates for violent crimes are so low in many major US cities: witnesses are often not involved in the criminal justice system.
Two federal bills are currently before Congressional Judiciary Committees that seek to improve this situation. The first is the Witness Security and Protection Grant Program Act of 2021 (S. 2958; hereafter WS&P) and the second is the Violent Incident Clearance and Technological Investigative Methods Act of 2021 (HR 5768; hereafter VICTIM). At first glance, these bills have unique objectives. WS&P would provide competitive grants and technical assistance to state, tribal and local governments to provide witness protection or assistance in legal proceedings involving certain serious or organized crimes. VICTIM would provide grants to law enforcement agencies or state, tribal, and local attorneys’ offices to improve solve rates for murders and shootings. These grants could support a diverse set of activities, including funding and training detectives, hiring and training sworn officers, purchasing new technology and equipment, hiring, training and recruitment of evidence processing staff and analysts, funding for victim services, and the development of policing and victim services programs. . Currently, WS&P would provide $30,000,000 for each fiscal year between 2022 and 2026, while VICTIM would provide $100,000,000 for each fiscal year between 2023 and 2032.
The two issues that WS&P and VICTIM seek to address, witness intimidation/retaliation and shooting permits, respectively, are extremely important. In the United States, only about 60% of murders, 33% of assaults with a firearm and 25% of robberies are erased each year, and studies show that witness intimidation is common in neighborhoods affected by criminality. Yet without a redesign of these bills, their impact on these issues will be less than desired. Indeed, both bills suffer from key limitations, which could be addressed by combining the funds and using them to achieve the desired results through different and more effective means. Specifically, these funds should be used for the establishment of victim and witness service providers in each local and tribal area who would serve victims, witnesses and relatives immediately after serious violent victimization until the or people are safe from the dangers associated with crime. In many cases, this could include activities such as physical relocation, street outreach, community organizing or security services. In addition, funds should be allocated to evaluate these programs.
The main limitations of WS&P and VICTIM that this alternative bill would address include 1) protecting witnesses before and after court proceedings instead of only during them and 2) focusing on one of the main causes of weak rate of resolution of shootings – a lack of cooperation from witnesses – by better protecting and supporting witnesses. If witnesses are not safe to cooperate with law enforcement, there will be no legal proceedings, and if witnesses are injured after legal proceedings, it will send a message to their communities that there will be no legal proceedings. unsure about participating in the criminal justice system. The limitation of VICTIM is that it is not directed at what appears to be the main driver of low rates of violent crime solving in many large cities, namely the lack of witness participation in criminal investigations. While some of these needs are being met by existing victim service providers and local, state, and federal witness protection programs, these programs do not have sufficient funds to meet existing needs and are limited by funding provisions. and eligibility. By combining the appropriations offered by WS&P and VICTIM and directing them toward the institutionalization and expansion of victim and witness services, Congress could better enhance existing witness protection mechanisms to increase participation in the justice system. criminal justice.
Thomas Scott is a sociologist at the Center for Police Research and Scientific Investigation of RTI International.