A proposal that would make witness intimidation, for the first time, a federal offense with harsh punishments is welcome news for law enforcement.
Congress should act promptly to approve the State Witness Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
Failure to do a better job of protecting those brave enough to step forward will have dire consequences in the fight against crime.
Witness intimidation, as the senator said in Buffalo the other day, has become a national issue and should be addressed at that level.
News staff reporter Lou Michel’s chronicle of an East Side family believed to have been targeted Oct. 31 by a gunman trying to keep a witness from testifying in a drive-by shooting is but one stark example.
Tara Hall is now paralyzed from the waist down. It was her daughter, Yasmine, who was going back and forth on whether to identify to authorities the gunman in a drive-by shooting outside a neighborhood store in May.
Schumer attributed the lack of arrests in homicides in Buffalo to witness intimidation. He said only 12 of the 50 homicides last year ended in arrests. It’s a recurring complaint he has heard from national associations of district attorneys and police chiefs.
Witness intimidation has to be reduced, and the measures Schumer has come up with could provide the necessary deterrent.
Killing a witness can already lead to the death penalty in federal court. But the penalties for other cases of intimidation need toughening.
Increasing the maximum penalty to 30 years, up from 25 under state law, for attempted murder or the use of force against a witness is intended to send a stronger message.
The legislation would also set a maximum of 20 years in prison for other types of witness intimidation, an increase from seven years under current state law.
Policing the streets is tough enough, but it is made much more difficult when key witnesses stay silent. It’s difficult to completely blame them when they know witnesses in other cases have been injured or killed.
Police and the District Attorney’s Office have worked to deal with the problem, but getting to the right solution requires all levels of government.
Law enforcement and the judicial system cannot work without the help of citizens. And they should not be silenced by thugs.