MADISON (AP) - Prosecutors in Milwaukee would get hundreds of thousands of dollars to continue their witness protection program under a budget proposal the county executive released Friday.
Prosecutors around the nation are struggling to find enough money to protect witnesses even as intimidation on the streets is surging. Case-in-point: the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department dropped its witness protection program in 2003 after dwindling state aid made it too expensive to run. The Associated Press reported in April that Milwaukee prosecutors on average charged someone with intimidating a witness every six days in the first four years since the program ended.
District Attorney John Chisholm won a $50,000 state grant to run a pilot witness protection program over the summer. County Executive Scott Walker said he was impressed enough by that program's performance to include $345,000 for a permanent unit in next year's budget.
"There really are a lot of people that have kind of thrown their hands up in the air. This is an example where we didn't throw our hands in the air," Chisholm said. "We came up with a plan, we executed it and we continue to show its effectiveness."
Chisholm has been working to restore a witness protection program in Wisconsin's largest city since he took office in January 2007.
He ramped up his efforts last year after 24-year-old Maurice Pulley was shot to death in his mother's driveway after he agreed to testify against a thug who had shot him in the face.
He won the grant through the state Department of Justice after promising to create an investigative unit that focused more on identifying cases where threats were likely to occur, such as domestic violence disputes, and stopping them early rather than spending money to hide people in hotels or ship them out-of-state.
Since the program began June 1, he has devoted six of the seven investigators in his office as well as three interns to it.
As of Sept. 10, the unit had screened 250 cases for potential witness intimidation, gotten involved in 95 and made 24 arrests. Chisholm said the unit has relocated some people - it moved Pulley's family out of state, for example - and provided witnesses services ranging from grocery vouchers to cell phones. But the onus has been to pick up on threats early and track down intimidators.
"We've just put thousands of hours in on investigations on these cases," Chisholm said. "It's not the old-style, put them in a hotel for a month or two. This is much more pro-active."
Walker wants to give Chisholm's office about $345,000 to fund a five-investigator team devoted to protecting witnesses. Three of those investigators would be new hires.
He wouldn't get into details on where he found the dollars before he presents the budget to the county board next week, but he did say no departments were cut specifically for witness protection money and the overall budget will reflect enough savings to create the funding. Milwaukee County's budget runs only for one year, but Walker built the witness protection unit into base-level funding, meaning it would be an ongoing part of future budgets.
The state grant ends Sept. 30. Chisholm plans to continue his witness protection efforts through the end of the year with existing staff.
The county board will vote on revisions to the budget in November. The final spending plan will go into effect in January, but if the witness protection money survives debate Chisholm could begin looking for his five new detectives right away.
Board chairman Lee Holloway didn't immediately return a message seeking comment on the money's prospects, but Walker said he was confident the board would support it.
Pulley's father, Maurice Pulley Sr., struggled to find the words to thank Walker.
"It's just an awesome move on his part," said Pulley, who chose to remain behind in Wisconsin in part to keep pushing for witness protection. "It's a role model for the rest of the nation … To have my son associated with that, it has a tremendous healing to that, to know that such worthy efforts have come forward and manifested itself in a way to help the community at large."
Chisholm said he plans to keep working with Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to press legislators to devote more state money to witness protection in Milwaukee and across Wisconsin.
Under state law, counties that provide victim and witness services can have 90 percent of their expenses reimbursed by the state. Over the last decade, though, that percentage has fallen to just more than 50 percent.
State Department of Justice spokesman Kevin St. John said the agency anticipates more counties will follow Milwaukee's lead and create similar witness protection programs. The agency has asked Gov. Jim Doyle for an additional $1.6 million for victim-witness reimbursements statewide in the 2009-2011 state budget.