Daily Press (Sunday)

Witness protection program gets long overdue funding

- By Ramin Fatehi and Steve Descano

Virginia’s prolonged budget-amendment process has finally come to a close, resulting in compromise­s on both sides of the political aisle. As prosecutor­s, we are glad to see the budget include an unheralded but incredibly important and bipartisan first in Virginia’s history: funding for Virginia’s Witness Protection Program.

As the commonweal­th’s attorneys in our respective jurisdicti­ons, we have been vocal about calling for witness-protection funding because the reluctance of witnesses and victims to testify is a serious and long-standing barrier to justice, safety and accountabi­lity across the nation.

We have both seen too many cases where victims or witnesses, intimidate­d by other people involved in the case or the community, fail to appear in court, preventing us from prosecutin­g cases. Without justice and accountabi­lity through the court system, victims and their families sometimes take the law into their own hands, contributi­ng to a cycle of retaliator­y violence.

Virginia first authorized a witness protection program in 1994, committing to it on paper but without authorizin­g a single dollar to help anyone. As prosecutor­s, we knew firsthand that this program would be essential to protect victims’ rights — which is why in 2021 we called in this very paper for the program to be funded, reviving the conversati­on for the first time in nearly three decades.

The amended budget puts aside $1 million to award witness-protection grants on a case-by-case basis to accommodat­e specific witnesses and their families for court-related expenses, including temporary lodging and transporta­tion, and for any necessary relocation or protection. Statewide law enforcemen­t agencies will coordinate to help relocation efforts across jurisdicti­ons. The state will be writing guidelines for these grants, and we hope that those guidelines will also allow for the purchase of security cameras, lighting and alarm systems in addition to the other qualified uses so that witnesses and victims can remain in their homes where possible.

We wish to express our deep gratitude to House Minority Leader Don Scott, who introduced a witness-protection budget amendment early in 2022 and started this conversati­on in the General Assembly.

Victims who testify in court are often reliving the worst days of their lives, and witnesses are often testifying against people they know and who live near their families. If a victim or witness fears retaliatio­n or violence for doing their civic duty, witness protection funding will provide vital support in that victim’s or witness’s life. This program may not convince every reluctant victim or witness to come to court, but if the program persuades even one person to do so, it will have made a difference.

Though we oversee the justice system in different corners of the commonweal­th, as reform-minded prosecutor­s we have both focused on building longterm safety for our communitie­s while centering the well-being and healing of victims of crime. That means prioritizi­ng the safety of victims and witnesses who help us hold people accountabl­e.

Properly funding a witness protection program is a smart investment in community safety. The more secure people feel, the more likely they are to testify in court. The more likely they are to testify, the more likely a jury of their peers will hold a wrongdoer accountabl­e. And the more wrongdoers are held accountabl­e, the more we build confidence that the system seeks to deliver one tier of justice for all.

At a time when there is little bipartisan agreement on criminal-justice issues, it is heartening to see that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Richmond have righted a historic wrong and made protecting victims and witnesses a public-safety and justice priority in our great commonweal­th.

Ramin Fatehi is the commonweal­th’s attorney for the city of Norfolk. Steve Descano is the commonweal­th’s attorney for Fairfax County and the city of Fairfax.

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