Illinois’ state witness protection program eventually received millions in funding, but has yet to get off the ground

Illinois’ state witness protection program eventually received millions in funding, but has yet to get off the ground

CHICAGO — For the second year in a row, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker is proposing the state spend millions of dollars on a witness protection program that was unfunded for the first nine years of its existence.

Eight months since the long-neglected initiative secured its initial funding, however, no witnesses have been transferred, and only $67,500 of the $30 million approved by the General Assembly last spring has been spent, primarily on employee-related expenses.

The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, which oversees the program, said it is still trying to come up with rules on how to collect the money, have enough employees to administer the program and finalize how potential recipients will be notified of the funds. .

“While we are all interested in receiving victim witness protection funds for those in need, the ICJIA must take a number of steps to ensure that this new $30 million program is properly planned, fully established and effectively administered,” ICJIA spokeswoman Christine Evans said in an emailed response to questions. to do

ICJIA said the fund was created to reimburse police departments and state attorneys’ offices for money spent on relocating victims or witnesses due to security concerns. The funds will help police departments start their own witness protection funds.

Pritzker called on lawmakers to financially support the witness protection fund in his 2022 budget speech, at the start of an election year in which Republicans have made crime a centerpiece of their campaigns and accused the Democratic governor of being weak on the issue. Pritzker initially offered $20 million But when that budget passed through the Legislature a few months later, $30 million was appropriated for the fund.

“Victims and witnesses need to feel safe if they are willing to come forward and identify violent criminals,” Pritzker said in his February 2022 address from the Old State Capitol in Springfield. “If we want people to speak up without fear of intimidation, we need to give law enforcement the resources they need to protect victims and witnesses who want to do the right thing.”

Pritzker’s proposal to provide up to $30 million more for the program “reflects the governor’s commitment to stable funding for the program and ensures the program can move forward without delay,” his office said.

“The governor’s office is dedicated to the success of this program, so we wanted to make sure they had the necessary appropriations authority,” Pritzker spokesman Jordan Abudayeh said in an email. “These deposits can potentially cover multiple years and they may not be fully spent in the near term if there is no demand.”

Witness protection is best known as a federal initiative. According to federal authorities, the Federal Witness Security Program dates back to the early 1970s and has provided protection for about 19,000 people.

According to the US Marshals Service website, victims and witnesses, as well as their family members, under the federal program typically receive new identities along with documentation and are given assistance with basic living expenses, medical care, job training and job search.

States that offer witness protection services independently of the federal program include California. The witness relocation program in California, which has nearly three times the population of Illinois, received about $2.4 million in funding in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, according to a report from the California Attorney General’s Office.

During that time, the program handled 114 new cases and provided assistance to 124 witnesses and 161 family members, according to the report.

Several law enforcement agencies contacted by the Tribune said they would welcome larger state funding for witness protection efforts. But its demand is not clear. In the 1990s, Illinois ran a witness protection program for two years and saw little participation.

“In general, anything that helps more victims and witnesses, obviously, state’s attorneys are all for it,” said Gray Noll, the state’s attorney for downstate Morgan County who also heads the Illinois State’s Attorney Association. “I think witness intimidation is certainly a concern in large counties. … Is this $30 million going to help statewide? no But it will definitely help counties that are struggling with that issue.”

Only in rare cases do police and prosecutors move people or witnesses out of concern for their safety, and law enforcement officials acknowledge that moving victims or witnesses away from danger and away from family, friends or their jobs can be complicated.

“Just the fact that they say we’re going to move you to a safe neighborhood, away from this gang, away from threats, that’s still a big concern when you’re asking someone to do that,” said former Chicago Police First Deputy Superintendent Anthony Riccio. , who retired from the department in 2020.

The state’s witness protection fund was established under a 2013 law known as the Gang Crime Witness Protection Act whose lead House sponsor was state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, a Democrat from Hillside who is now House speaker. The measure had nearly unanimous support, passing 112-0 in the House and 42-3 in the Senate.

“This bill is designed to break the silence among the gangbangers who are causing trouble on the streets across our great state,” Welch said on the House floor shortly before it passed, according to a transcript of the April 2013 debate.

Under the law, financial assistance is limited to rent, security deposits, temporary living expenses, moving expenses and other relocation expenses. The law also states that counties can apply for reimbursement of 75% of relocation costs. Also, under the law no more than 50% of the funds in a given fiscal year can be allocated to a single county.

Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed the measure into law, but it received no funding during his time in office as Quinn focused on priorities such as managing pension costs and unfunded liabilities.

His successor, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, clashed with the Democrat-led General Assembly, leading to a budget stalemate for more than two years. During the first three years of Pritzker’s administration, the program continued to be underfunded.

Past state efforts to finance similar relocation initiatives have been inconsistent.

In 1996, then-Republican Governor Jim Edgar signed the Gang Crime Witness Protection Program into law. It was a two-year pilot program run by the Illinois State Police for local prosecutors and attorney general’s offices. Legislators appropriated $666,000 for the program.

According to a 1997 evaluation of the ICJIA program, which covered the first 16 months of its operation, the three counties submitted requests for reimbursement of $30,962 for costs related to the protection or relocation of 27 people in 18 cases.

While the evaluation noted that the program had a “significant impact” on the “few gang-related cases” in which it provided services, it also made clear that the program had some shortcomings.

“There was a marked level of unawareness about the program on the part of law enforcement and prosecutorial staff,” the assessment said. Lack of communication is “supposed to be a major barrier to its effective implementation and use.”

ICJIA spokesman Evans said the results of the agency’s evaluation of the witness protection pilot program during the Edgar years are “informing” the development of ICJIA’s new program.

“Despite the low participation noted in the 1997 program evaluation, ICJIA anticipates a greater demand following the release of these funds,” Evans said in his email. “Furthermore, ICJIA employs an effective outreach strategy to inform potential applicants of funding opportunities and will target messaging to eligible entities. This is a new program and funding will be adjusted based on demand.”

Riccio recalled witness protection efforts two or three times a year, as there were limited resources to provide such services.

“The witness they were transferring had to be really critical to the case,” Riccio said. “You cannot be a circumstantial witness. You can’t be a wish-washer type. You have to be the kind of person to point the finger at the culprit.”

Cook County has provided some relocation services for victims or witnesses. For example, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office said that in roughly the first 10 months of 2021, prosecutors transferred or were in the process of transferring, individuals or family members connected to about three dozen cases out of thousands the office handled that year.

A spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx would not say whether her office would apply for funding from the new state program, though she said “we are constantly looking for opportunities that allow us to better serve and protect our residents.”

In Aurora, Illinois’ second most populous city, a police spokeswoman said her department had only two cases that she was aware of that required witness protection, and both were handled by the federal witness protection program.

DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin, whose jurisdiction includes a portion of Aurora, said in his days as Cook County prosecutor he has seen more cases involving witness protection than he faced in DuPage. But he did not discount the need for such a program in DuPage.

“We have gangs here in DuPage County just like they do in Chicago and we get into the same situation with witnesses,” Berlin said. “I think it’s important for prosecutors that we know this money is available and that we can apply for it if we need it.”

Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow acknowledged the demands for witness protection in his jurisdiction are “not really onerous.” But he said the state fund could be helpful for victims of domestic violence who fear their abusers, and he plans to ask prosecutors who handle those cases about the fund.

“A lot of times (victims of domestic violence) are completely financially dependent on their abuser,” she said. “But it will give us an opportunity to at least temporarily get them back on their own two feet, maybe give them some counseling, some kind of job tracking.”

Although law enforcement officials say retaliation for testifying against someone at trial is rare, there are high-profile cases that contribute to such fears.

In one example, 18-year-old Treza Kelly was shot and killed in September 2019, months after testifying in the murder trial for a man accused of killing her teenage cousin in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

According to Cook County prosecutors, A $5,000 reward was placed on Kelly After he helped win a guilty verdict. A man accused of killing her is awaiting trial.

In other cases26-year-old Kimberly Harris, who survived a shooting that killed her boyfriend, who was shot and killed on the West Side in 2011, was offered $20,000 to refuse to testify at the accused gunman’s trial.

State Rep. LaSean Ford, a Democrat from the West Side who co-sponsored legislation a decade ago to establish a witness protection fund, said last month that the money, if spent appropriately, could be helpful in cities like Chicago where police often have to solve violent crimes. struggling

“We just have to make sure the money goes out the door,” he said. “We have the money to deal with the problems and we can’t let that money sit on the shelf.”


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