For the second year in a row, Gov. JB Pritzker is proposing the state spend tens of 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 relocated, and only about $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 dole out the money, ensure it has enough employees to administer the program and finalize how potential recipients will be informed about the fund .
“While we are all eager to get Victim Witness Protection Funds to those in need, ICJIA must take several steps to ensure this new $30 million program is appropriately designed, fully established, and effectively administered,” ICJIA spokeswoman Cristin Evans said in an emailed response your questions.
The fund is intended to reimburse police departments and state’s attorneys offices for money spent on victims or witnesses in need of relocation because of security concerns, ICJIA said. The funding would also help police departments start their own witness protection funds.
Pritzker urged legislators to financially support the witness protection fund in his 2022 budget speech, at the start of an election year in which Republicans made crime central to their campaign and accused the Democratic governor of being weak on the issue. Pritzker initially proposed $20 million but when that budget passed through the legislature a few months later, $30 million was set aside for the fund.
“Victims and witnesses need to feel safe if they’re going to be willing to come forward and identify violent criminals,” Pritzker said during 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 that want to do the right thing.”
Pritzker’s proposal to again provide up to $30 million for the program is a reflection of “the governor’s commitment to stable funding for this program and the appropriation 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 ensure they had the appropriation authority they needed,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in an email. “These deposits could potentially cover multiple years and they may not fully expend in the near-term unless the demand is there.”
Witness protection is best known as a federal undertaking. The federal witness security program has been around since the early 1970s and has provided protection for some 19,000 people, according to federal authorities.
Victims and witnesses, as well as their family members, under the federal program typically get new identities with documentation, according to the US Marshals Service website, and they’re offered basic living expenses, medical care, job training and help seeking employment.
States that provide witness protection services independent of the federal program include California. The witness relocation program in California, which has a population about three times that 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 managed 114 new cases and provided help to 124 witnesses and 161 of their family members, according to the report.
Several law enforcement agencies contacted by the Tribune said they’d welcome large-scale state funding for witness protection efforts. But the degree of demand for it is unclear. In the 1990s, Illinois ran a witness protection program for two years and saw little participation.
“Generally, anything that helps more victims and witnesses, obviously, state’s attorneys are all for that,” said Gray Noll, the state’s attorney of downstate Morgan County who also heads the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association. “I think that witness intimidation is certainly more of a concern in the larger counties. … Is this $30 million going to help counties statewide? No. But it will certainly help counties that struggle with that issue.”
Only in rare cases do police and prosecutors relocate victims or witnesses out of concern for their safety, and law enforcement officials have acknowledged that moving victims or witnesses away from danger, and away from their families, friends or their jobs, can be complicated.
“Just the mere fact they say we’re going to relocate you to a safe neighborhood, to a safe area away from these gangs, away from the threat, that’s still a big upheaval when you’re asking somebody 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 chief House sponsor was state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, a Democrat from Hillside who is now the House speaker. The measure had almost unanimous support, passing 112-0 in the House and 42-3 in the Senate.
“This bill is designed to break the code of silence among gangbangers who are causing trouble in the streets throughout our great state,” Welch said on the House floor moments before it passed, according to a transcript of the April 2013 debate.
Under the law, monetary assistance is limited to rent, security deposits, temporary living costs, moving expenses and other relocation expenses. The law also says that the counties can apply for as much as 75% reimbursement of the relocation costs. Also, no more than 50% of the funding in a given fiscal year can be allocated to a single county, under the law.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed the measure into law, but during his years in office it received no funding as Quinn focused on priorities such as managing pension costs and unfunded liabilities.
His successor, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, feuded with the Democrat-led General Assembly, which led to a more than two-year budget impasse. The program continued to go unfunded during the first three years of Pritzker’s administration.
Past state efforts at funding similar relocation initiatives were inconsistent.
In 1996, then-Republican Gov. Jim Edgar signed into law the Gang Crime Witness Protection Program. It was a two-year pilot program, administered by the Illinois State Police, for local prosecutors and the attorney general’s office. Legislators appropriated $666,000 for the program.
According to a 1997 ICJIA evaluation of the program, which covered the first 16 months of its operation, three counties submitted requests for reimbursement of $30,962 in 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 “those few gang-related cases” to which it provided service, it also made clear the program had some shortcomings.
“There were marked levels of unawareness of the program on the part of law enforcement and prosecutors’ staff,” the evaluation stated. The lack of communication “is believed to be a major constraining factor to its effective implementation and utilization.”
Evans, the ICJIA spokeswoman, said the agency’s evaluation results of the witness protection pilot program during the Edgar years “are informing” ICJIA’s development of the new program.
“Despite the low participation cited in the 1997 program evaluation, ICJIA anticipates a greater demand for this funding once it is released,” Evans said in her email. “In addition, ICJIA employs an effective outreach strategy for notifying potential applicants of funding opportunities and will target messaging to the eligible entities. This is a new program and funding will be adjusted moving forward based on demand.”
Riccio recalled witness protection efforts being made two or three times a year, as there were limited assets for providing such services.
“The witness that they were relocating had to really be critical to the case,” Riccio said. “You couldn’t be kind of a circumstantial witness. You couldn’t be kind of a wishy-washy. You had to be the person to really point the finger at the offender.”
Cook County has provided some relocation services for victims or witnesses. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office has said, for instance, that during roughly the first 10 months of 2021, prosecutors relocated, or were in the process of relocating, individuals or family members connected to about three dozen cases out of the thousands of cases the office handled that year.
A spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx could not say whether her office would apply for funding from the new state program, although she said “we continually look for opportunities that allow us to better serve and protect residents.”
In Aurora, Illinois’ second most populous city, a police spokesman said there were only two cases involving his department that he is aware of in which witnesses needed protection, and both of those were handled by the federal witness protection program.
DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin, whose jurisdiction includes a portion of Aurora, said he saw more cases that would warrant witness protection during his days as a Cook County prosecutor than he has encountered 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 run into the same situations with witnesses,” said Berlin. “I think it’s important for prosecutors that we know that this money’s available and that if there’s a need for it we can apply for it.”
Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow acknowledged the demand for witness protection in his jurisdiction “isn’t real heavy.” But he said the state fund could be helpful for domestic violence victims who are afraid of their abusers, and he plans on having his prosecutors who handle those cases inquire about funding.
“So many times (domestic violence victims are) completely financially dependent on their abuser,” he said. “But this would give us the opportunity to at least temporarily get them on their own two feet, maybe get them into some counseling, a job track of some kind.”
While law enforcement officials say retaliation for testifying against someone at trial is rare, there have been high-profile cases that contributed to such fears.
In one example, Treja Kelley, 18, was shot and killed in September 2019, just months after she testified 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 bounty was placed on Kelley after she helped win a guilty verdict. A man charged in her killing is awaiting trial.
In another case26-year-old Kimberly Harris, who survived a shooting that killed her boyfriend, was shot to death in 2011 on the West Side just two days after she was offered $20,000 to decline to testify at the trial of the alleged gunman.
State Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Democrat from the West Side who co-sponsored the legislation a decade ago to establish the witness protection fund, said last month that the money, if spent appropriately, could be helpful in cities such as Chicago where police often struggle to solve violent crimes.
“We just have to make sure that the money goes out the door,” he said. “We have money to deal with the problems and we can’t let that money sit on the shelf.”