People who intimidate crime victims and witnesses should pay to help solve the problems they create, City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said Wednesday.
He proposed to fine people convicted of witness intimidation up to $2,000 and channel the money into a fund to help relocate witnesses who are facing threats. The money would supplement Philadelphia's state-funded witness relocation program, which law enforcement officials said was significantly underfunded.
"Witnesses are to justice what gasoline is to automobiles," Jones said in an interview Wednesday. "You're not going to get far without it."
At a hearing of the City Council Committee on Law and Government, Jones urged his colleagues to support his plan. To take effect, the measure requires approval from Philadelphia voters because it would require a change in the City Charter to create a dedicated fund.
Even if approved, the impact of the plan might be limited. The District Attorney's Office budget for witness relocation is $885,000, an amount that District Attorney Seth Williams said fell short of the need. In his budget request in April, he asked for an extra $400,000 for the program, but was rebuffed.
Jones' plan, at best, would generate $200,000 yearly - and that assumes that the city collects from every convicted defendant. According to an Inquirer analysis, about 100 defendants annually are convicted of witness intimidation or retaliation.
Testifying Wednesday, Williams acknowledged that the collection process would be "cumbersome," but he said it was worth a try.
He warned that the measure alone would not address what he called a persistent and growing threat to the criminal justice system. Witness intimidation, he said, is a factor in virtually every violent crime case in the city.
"Saying 'no' to good proposals for funding requests to tackle this problem is no longer acceptable," Williams said. "It is an abdication of our collective responsibility to keep Philadelphians safe."
The six-member committee voted unanimously to send the measure to the full Council for a vote at its next session, "which basically means it's on a fast track," Jones said.