Gang trials account for bulk of witness protection spend
With witness intimidation still a major concern dogging the justice system, the country shelled out more than $758 million on its witness protection programme between April 2016 and March 2021, with the bulk of the spend recently being on gang cases.
There are 346 persons enrolled in the programme locally and abroad – 35 being taken in 2020 – the Ministry of National Security disclosed to The Sunday Gleaner in response to an access to information request.
The ministry, however, declined to state the number of witnesses who have opted out of the voluntary initiative, taking their protection into their own hands, since 2017. Such information was “security sensitive”, it said.
The nature of the witnesses’ affiliated cases include breaches of the Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organisations) (Amendment) Act, commonly called the anti-gang legislation; murder; attempted murder; robbery with aggravation; attempting to pervert the course of justice; wounding with intent; rape; and gun and ammunition-related offences.
In the ongoing Clansman-One Don gang trial, the witness protection programme has factored “heavily”, said Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn.
In this matter, the public has been exposed to allegations of a twisted web of deception, gang executions and hit lists that angered reputed gang leader, Andre ‘Blackman’ Bryan, whenever ordered hits were delayed.
Under the law, the State is responsible for granting protection and/or assistance to witnesses, jurors, judicial and law enforcement personnel.
The DPP, who the law requires to prepare and submit applications for persons considered necessary to enter the programme, described it as extremely important in murder cases, noting that some participants end up in the programme long after their cases have ended – up to 16 years, to her knowledge.
“Invariably, if it is that the witness protection programme has had to take steps and resources to keep that witness abroad, usually, after the case is completed, that witness remains there,” she said.
Llewellyn explained that the national security ministry makes an assessment of the persons’ circumstance and state of mind before they are taken into the programme.
“There is not a fixed timeline,” she added. “It is specific to the assessment of the risk of the persons.”
Llewellyn said that the number of persons who leave the system is usually in the minority.
The Government spent $25 million on the programme in financial year 2019-2020 and $29.5 million in 2020-2021, more than was budgeted.
In 2020-2021, allowance and accommodation represented the bulk of the spend at $68.5 million and $63.9 million, respectively. These were followed by fees for utilities, at $18 million, and $9 million for medical expenses.
Roughly $8 million was spent on furniture for witnesses in the system, some of whom stay on for years depending on the nature of their cases and threat assessments done following their court testimonies.
Another $1 million was spent on overseas travel and $1.8 million on transportation fees in that financial year.
National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang declined to address the reasons for an increase in expenditure for 2019-20 and 2020-21, but noted that most – if not all – of the gang trials depend on the programme.
“You are not always able to predict what is going to happen, and all the gang cases will always have people in witness protection by the very nature of gang investigation. That’s where the biggest expense goes,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
In the meantime, Dr Jason McKay, CEO of McKay Security, who has investigated some of Jamaica’s gangs and interacted with hundreds of victims on the programme, described the amount of money spent on the programme as “way too small”.
“They are spending far too little money on the programme. I used to handle witnesses by myself back in the ‘90s and I can tell you that at that time, it was unbelievably difficult,” he noted.
“What is happening now versus what was happening 25 years ago is night and day, and this is a real professional programme. Their budget should be nothing under $1 billion a year with the murder rate that we have and the amount of gun-related cases. The budget should be nothing under $1 billion!” he emphasised.
Major costs under witness protection programme between April 2018 and March 2021
Description Apr ‘18-Mar ‘19 Apr ‘19-Mar ‘20 Apr ‘20-Mar ‘21
Accommodation $58,900,463.05 $60,794,819.04 $68,511,382.72
Allowance $47220,731.16 $52,338,797.12 $63,896,355.21
Education $11,950,898.39 $12,608,514.17 $5,447,656.38
Furniture $4,305,214.23 $3,566,512.38 $7,713,612.66
Medical $7,227,044.99 $8,616,442.00 $8,988,421.73
Overseas travel $6,651,341.69 $5,489,439.65 $1,108,549.49
Separation $3,033,793.12 $5,548,151.89 $5,248,697.03
Transportation $1,305,015.26 $1,645,145.00 $1,810,083.75
Utilities $14,540,287.76 $15,819,908.28 $18,191,589.92
Total $155,134,789.65 $166,427,729.53 $180,916,348.89