City’s help amplifies Philadelphia witness assistance program

When Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter unveiled the city’s new crime-fighting plan last month, he promised more money for the Witness Assistance Program.

Helping a witness relocate can be a pricey proposition.

“We cover hotel costs that could be 30 to 60 days, we cover storage fees, moving costs.  It could be to another city, another state.  The average relocation is generally about $10,000 minimum,” says Leland Kent, executive director of Victim/ Witness and Neighborhood Services for the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.

 

With an extra $200,000 from the city, Kent said he may be able to help witnesses for six months instead of just four. And, Kent says, the money may allow him to help get information from some who are reluctant to part with it.

The approximate $750,000 in state money the program receives comes with strings attached — applicants must be classified as witnesses.  The city funding, Kent said, can be used for people who want assistance before cooperating.   While he knows that many witnesses are scared to come forward, Kent said thousands of families have been relocated successfully. “There have been a few cases where people have been killed.  There were five witnesses that I’m aware of,” he said. “And in those situations, they were all people who returned to the danger area.” When witnesses enter the program, they agree not to return to the area where the incident occurred or others places that could be dangerous.  Kent, who declined to go into some of the program details, said usually getting out of the Philadelphia area is enough to protect a witness.  Most perpetrators are tough in their neighborhoods, he said, but won’t go far to track down a witness. Kent well knows the pain of losing a loved one, and the frustration of witnesses who are afraid to come forward. His brother was murdered in the 1990s in North Philadelphia.   “It was actually six young men who picked a fight with him because he owed them some money and they basically beat him to death.  It was difficult to have people come forward.” Kent said. “They were afraid.” Kent says his brother’s killing motivates him to keep working so other families of murder victims see justice.

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