Schmoke sets up $500,000 witness protection fund Aim is to help prosecution of violent crime

October 22, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Fearful witnesses to violent crimes in Baltimore will be eligible for travel expenses to and from court, stepped-up police protection and money to relocate under a new program to be launched by the Schmoke administration next month.

The $500,000 witness security program is designed to encourage witnesses who might be afraid to come forward to cooperate with police and prosecutors, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said at a news briefing yesterday.

"I think this is going to help us a great deal with our ability to effectively prosecute some of the violent offenders who have been preying upon our community," the mayor said. He said the program would be "up and running before December."

City State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms said that he could not say immediately how many cases his office could not prosecute because witnesses would not testify. But he said "half a dozen to a dozen" criminal trials had to be delayed or postponed because witnesses were fearful of testifying.

"The present situation is not a catastrophe. But we want to make sure we have these things available in case we need them," Mr. Simms said.

Also yesterday, Mr. Schmoke announced that he will provide

$250,000 for drug treatment for between 700 and 1,000 addicts who will take part in an experimental needle-exchange program expected to begin next year.

He said the needle-exchange program, coupled with the added drug treatment funds, "will have an impact not only on the AIDS issue but also on the crime issue because studies have shown that people who have easy access to treatment are less likely to get involved in criminal activity."

Legislation allowing the city to establish a pilot needle-exchange program is to be taken up by the Maryland General Assembly shortly after it convenes in January.

The announcement of the added drug treatment funds follows on the heels of an Abell Foundation report that the city needs to sharply increase the money it spends on drug treatment to deal with problems created by drug abuse. The report said that annual government spending on drug treatment in Baltimore is $15 million but that the city contributes only $150,000, or just over 1 percent, of that figure.

But Mr. Schmoke -- who advocates a change in national drug policy that stresses treatment of abusers rather than incarceration -- said that the added funds did not signal a broad commitment to provide more money for treatment programs.

"We have not been able to use a lot of local discretionary funds for drug treatment," the mayor conceded. "But with the needle-exchange program likely to start in February, we thought it was necessary to put more local funds in to expand those available [drug treatment] slots. If the needle-exchange program does expand then, of course, we would expand our contribution."

In outlining the new witness security program, Mr. Schmoke described it as a less "elaborate" version of the federal witness protection program that relocates witnesses whose lives are believed to be in jeopardy and gives them new identities.

State's Attorney Simms, whose office will administer the program in cooperation with the Police Department and sheriff's office, said the money could be used to pay for police overtime to escort witnesses to and from court, or to guard them at their homes before or during trials.

Also, he said, relocation could be "outside the state, outside the city or outside the neighborhood, depending on the witness' need."

No more than 50 witnesses a year would likely be affected, Mr. Simms said. In addition, he said, part of the money could be used to add to existing reward funds or to set up a new fund.

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