Expanding victim services to improve witness protection and shooting investigations

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In the U.S., some victims and witnesses of violent crime face real dangers for cooperating with the criminal justice system and this fact severely limits the criminal justice system’s ability to prevent crime. This is evidenced by findings from a relatively large study of crime-impacted youth in Massachusetts. In this study, one-third of youth had heard of threats against schoolmates or neighbors in response to reporting gang crimes and just one-half of youth with exposure to gang crime told someone about it. What’s more, of the youth who told someone, only 13 percent of those youth reported the crime to the police. Importantly, this study found that youth were unlikely to report these crimes to the police if they feared retaliation for reporting or did not have access to a police officer they trusted. In a different study of 98 men who had been incarcerated for a gun-related crime in Chicago and reported being shot in the past, 39 percent knew who had shot them. Yet, of these 38 men, 33 did not speak with the police about the shooting. Based on these findings, it is no surprise that violent crime clearance and conviction rates are so low in many large U.S. cities: witnesses often do not participate in the criminal justice system. 

Two federal bills are currently under consideration in Congress’s Judiciary committees that are meant to improve this situation. The first is the Witness Security and Protection Grant Program Act of 2021 (S. 2958; herein WS&P) and the second is the Violent Incident Clearance and Technological Investigative Methods Act of 2021 (H.R. 5768; herein VICTIM). At first look, these bills have unique purposes. WS&P would provide competitive grants and technical assistance to state, tribal, and local governments to provide witness protection or assistance in court proceedings involving certain serious or organized crimes. VICTIM would provide grants to state, tribal, and local law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices to improve murder and shooting clearance rates. 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 resourcing evidence processing personnel and analysts, funding victim services, and developing policing and victim service programs. Currently, WS&P would provide $30,000,000 for each fiscal year between 2022-2026 while VICTIM would provide $100,000,000 for each fiscal year between 2023-2032. 

The two issues WS&P and VICTIM seek to address, witness intimidation/retaliation and shooting clearances, respectively, are extremely important. In the U.S., only around 60 percent of murders, 33 percent of gun assaults, and 25 percent of gun robberies are cleared each year, and studies show witness intimidation is common in crime-impacted neighborhoods. Yet, without a reconceptualization of these bills, their impacts on these problems will be smaller than desired. This is because the two bills suffer from key limitations, which could be addressed by combining the funds and using them to achieve the desired outcomes through a different, more effective means. Specifically, these funds should go toward the establishment of victim and witness service providers in every local and tribal area that would serve victims, witnesses, and related persons immediately after a severe violent victimization until the person(s) are safe from dangers associated with the crime. In many cases, this could include activities such as physical relocation, street outreach, community organizing, or security services. Additionally, 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 primary causes of low shooting clearance rates—a lack of witness cooperation—by better protecting and supporting witnesses. If witnesses are not safe to cooperate with law enforcement, there will not be court proceedings, and if witnesses are harmed after court proceedings, this will send a message to their communities that it is not safe to participate in the criminal justice system. VICTIM’s limitation is that it is not directed toward what appears to be the major driver of low violent crime clearance rates in many large cities, which is a lack of witness participation in criminal investigations. Although some of these needs are satisfied by existing victim service providers and local, state, and Federal witness protection programs, these programs have insufficient funds to fill existing needs and are bounded by funding and eligibility provisions. By combining the proposed appropriates from WS&P and VICTIM and directing them toward the institutionalization and expansion of victim and witness services, Congress could better improve upon existing mechanisms for protecting witnesses to increase criminal justice system participation. 

Tom Scott is a Social Scientist for the Center for Policing Research and Investigative Science, RTI International. 

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