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The Witness Protection Program is a service provided by the United States government that protects witnesses in major criminal cases from physical harm and intimidation. Among law enforcement, the program is better known as the United States Federal Witness Security Program, or WITSEC. Under witness protection, someone will be provided with physical security as well as a new identity and a place to live. The program applies to witnesses and close family members who may also be under threat. Some Americans are surprised to learn that many of the people in the program are former criminals who made a bargain with the government to avoid prosecution.
In order to be eligible for witness protection, the witness must provide major evidence relating to a grave felony. Witnesses in organized crime, drug running, and terrorism cases may be offered protection if they qualify. If the life of the witness is considered to be at risk because of his or her testimony, protection will be offered, and family members are frequently included as well. The threat of death or intimidation must be substantial, as protecting a witness is very expensive.
The Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 included a provision to establish the Witness Protection Program. Under the Act, the US Attorney General has final say over who will enter the program. Typically, a state attorney general recommends a witness for inclusion in the program, although witnesses may also apply for protection. The protection offered by the program is provided for life, as long as the witness does not commit a crime again, and the recidivism rate is around 17%. Some individual states also offer witness protection programs of their own.
In addition to providing physical security, the program also relocates witnesses after the trial and provides them with new identities. A small living stipend is offered until the witness finds a new job, and other assistance may be provided on an as-needed basis. When the witness is relocated, local law enforcement are informed if he or she was a criminal, so that they can keep an eye on the witness as well.
The program also includes restrictions. The witness is not allowed to return to his or her former hometown and is not supposed to contact former friends and acquaintances. Nearly every witness who has complied with the terms of the program has been successfully protected, although witnesses who broke with the terms have been killed.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the purpose of the Witness Protection Program?
The Witness Protection Program, officially known as the Witness Security Program and operated by the U.S. Marshals Service, is designed to protect the lives of witnesses who are at risk due to their testimony against criminals, often in cases involving organized crime, drug trafficking, and terrorism. The program provides these individuals with a new identity and assistance in starting a new life, ensuring their safety in exchange for their crucial testimony that can lead to convictions.
How does someone enter the Witness Protection Program?
Entry into the Witness Protection Program typically begins with an agreement between the witness and the government. The witness agrees to provide testimony or information that is essential to the prosecution of a criminal case. After a thorough assessment of the risk, the U.S. Marshals Service may offer protection if the individual's testimony is deemed significant and the danger to their life is substantial. The process is highly confidential to maintain the security of the protected person.
What kind of new identity is provided in the Witness Protection Program?
Participants in the Witness Protection Program receive a new identity that includes a change in name, Social Security number, and background history. The U.S. Marshals Service works to create a credible and complete new identity, which may also involve changes in appearance and relocation to an undisclosed area. The goal is to make it as difficult as possible for anyone from the witness's former life to locate them.
Are family members also protected in the Witness Protection Program?
Yes, the safety of a witness's immediate family members is also a priority in the Witness Protection Program. If the family is also at risk, they may be included in the program, receiving new identities and relocation assistance. The decision to extend protection to family members is made on a case-by-case basis, considering the level of threat and the family's willingness to participate in the program.
How effective is the Witness Protection Program in ensuring the safety of its participants?
The Witness Protection Program has been notably effective in safeguarding its participants. According to the U.S. Marshals Service, since the program's inception in 1971, no witness who has followed security guidelines has been harmed while under their protection. This impressive track record underscores the program's commitment to the safety of witnesses and their families, which is paramount to its success and the integrity of the judicial system.
For more detailed information on the Witness Protection Program, you can visit the official U.S. Marshals Service website at https://www.usmarshals.gov/witsec.