In an attempt to cleverly persuade drug offender to rat out their dope dealers, Indiana lawmakers are working to assemble a witness protection program. The goal of this novel concept is to give more drug users and other low-level lawbreakers the opportunity to stay out of prison by encouraging them to turn state’s evidence against larger drug distribution rings. In exchange for this testimony, the state wants the ability to provide its snitches with the kind of protection necessary to keep them alive and well.
According to a report from the Indianapolis Star, Democratic Senator Jean Breaux has introduced a piece of legislation aimed at putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into Indiana counties to be used for witness protection. The proposed three-year pilot program (Senate Bill 150) was designed to cover the costs of a number of witness and victim assistance services, including relocation. However, it would provide funding only for Marion and Vanderburgh counties; two of the areas hit the hardest by violence associated with drug crimes.
Prosecutors Having Trouble Getting People to Snitch
When it comes to taking down large criminal organizations, state prosecutors often complain about having some trouble getting to the choke point. It is for this reason that lawmakers are looking to witness protection as a bargaining chip for these law enforcement hammers to keep in their bag of dirty tricks.
Many believe that by providing security and shelter for those with information leading to larger busts could help eliminate the bulk of violent gang activity from the streets.
“If there’s no way for a prosecutor to help them or protect them, it makes it difficult as an individual to come forward,” Breaux told the news source. “We need everyone’s help.”
Right now, there is only around $6,000 allotted in Marion County for protecting key witnesses. If Breaux’s bill goes through, the city could see as much as $400,000 in 2018.
Investigation Suggests Witness Protection Is Needed
The IndyStar published an investigation in 2016 indicating that a lack of witness cooperation is what has allowed many Indianapolis homicide cases to remain unsolved. It seems the snitches get stitches mentality is one of the primary factors in keeping police from solving these violent crimes at a rate higher than 40 percent.
Lawmakers believe the data would look completely different if there was money for things like protective custody.
More Drug Violence Occurs Statewide
The drug violence is getting worse in other parts of the state. In addition to Indianapolis’ record-breaking 154 murders last year, Evansville, the state’s third-largest city, is seeing more gang-related murders than ever before.
As many as 15 of these criminal organizations have taken up residence in the area, and they are running the show with a slit throat philosophy against anyone who gets in their way.
Prosecutors there say the city experienced three times as many homicides in 2017 than the previous year. Most of these killings have been linked to the black market drug trade.
“We’ve seen marijuana drug deals go bad. We’ve also seen heroin deals go bad,” said Jessica Powers, a spokeswoman for the Vanderburgh County prosecutor’s office. “Ultimately, it’s ending in the same thing: gunfire. And sometimes, that leads to murder.”
Final Hit: Does Witness Protection Work?
Justice Department employee Gerald Shur developed the idea of witness protection in 1971. The program is largely credited for convincing organized crime members, specifically those connected to the “mafia” to testify against higher-ranking members of the family. Almost 18,000 witnesses have been given this level of protection since the program was put into action. The federal government spends upwards of $10 million a year to keep this program humming like a well-oiled machine.
But states have their own programs. These are for people who have witnessed gang-related murders or can provide prosecutors with information that sinks a criminal organization. Still, while participating in a witness protection type of situation is the answer for some looking for a fresh start, others often steer clear of this option because it forces them to leave their old lives – most of their family and friends — in the rearview.
“Being in this program is hard because you’re isolated,” Nancy Burdell told NPR back in 2007. “You can’t see your family. You have to cut loose your friends. You basically feel like a caged animal.”
Because most people have difficulty disconnecting, officials say it can be a challenge convincing key witnesses to enter into protection. Many would rather take their chances on the outside. Often times, this leads to their untimely demise. There are even cases when someone in witness protection decides to leave the program and move on with normal lives.
Everyone who has ever entered into witness protection has remained safe, according to the U.S. Marshals.
As far as Indiana, prosecutors say witness protection would only be necessary in extreme cases. They admit the funding that could potentially be on the horizon from SB 150 would be an “amazing” tool to have in the shed.
The bill has been assigned to a Senate committee. It is expected to receive some attention later this month.
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