Why America Still Needs A Witness Protection Program

James Whitey BulgerJames ‘Whitey’ Bulger holds John Martorano’s youngest son, John Jr., during his Christening ceremony in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts.

When a witness in the case against Boston mobster Whitey Bulger turned up dead last week — from suicide although speculations remain — thoughts surfaced of the bad, old days of mobsters intimidating or even murdering witnesses.

While groups like Bulger’s Boston Irish mob or the Italian-American mafia don’t wield the same power they did in the past, the number of people heading into the Federal Witness Security Program (WitSec) has stayed pretty constant and potentially even grown, a criminologist told Business Insider.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. saw a boom in cases against the mafia and mob, criminologist and professor at Virginia State Commonwealth University Jay Albanese said. Now most big crime bosses are behind bars, thanks in part to the Racketeering and Corrupt organisations Act (RICO), which imposes harsh penalties for acts committed as part of a criminal enterprise.

Even though the old-world mob has died down, there’s still organised crime in America. Members of criminal enterprises don’t have strong allegiances to their leaders, making witness protection more important than ever.

“In the past, you had friendships, bloodlines, even some inter-marriage going on. That bond isn’t really there anymore,” Albanese said. Now, groups emerge based on opportunities for money-making in the crime market. Albanese used a example based on modern technology: ATM hack jobs. You need someone to scoop the bogus accounts number, another to make the cards, and even more to visit the various ATMS to collect the cash.

“These people are from a variety of countries, different nationalities. These people aren’t necessarily friends. They’re just networked. They link up for jobs, but they might not link up again. It’s a much more diffused kind of organised crime,” Albanese said.

This new type of organised crime means a lot of people are still heading into witness protection. Why? The weaker ties mean criminals will more likely cooperate in prosecutions against other criminals.

“The little fish testify against the big fish,” Albanese said. “People are concerned about their own skin, and less concerned about their loyalty or the past.”

More criminal enterprises also exist today, meaning more witnesses that need protection. Most Italian-American groups lost control, but that created opportunities for new groups.

“Let’s face it, if an Italian-American group in your neighbourhood gets prosecuted out of existence — which many of them have — there are probably still people looking for drugs, prostitution, those kinds of things,” Albanese said.

Between the emergence of the Hispanic and Asian mobs as well as local gangs, police stay pretty busy. “In addition to mob prosecutions, we also have terrorism now. That’s a whole new category that didn’t exist 15 years ago,” he said. With the nation’s recent war on terror, many witnesses in those cases have entered into the program.

Gangs, specifically, thrive on intimidation. A study conducted in 2005 on national gang violence reported that 66% of respondents reported witness intimidation as a common occurrence. According to the National Gang centre, the Los Angeles Police Department alone dealt with 778 cases of witness intimidation from 2000 to 2005. The nature of a gang’s core relies on violence, and they carry those tactics right to the courtroom.

According to the U.S. Marshalls fact sheet on witness protection, about 18,000 people have entered into the program since its start.

There’s some good news for people who go into witness protection. The U.S. Marshalls says not a single person in the witness relocation program who has followed the guidelines has been harmed while under their protection.

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