The Witness Protection Program is a service provided by the United States government that protects witnesses in major criminal cases from physical harm and intimidation. Among law enforcement, the program is better known as the United States Federal Witness Security Program, or WITSEC. Under witness protection, someone will be provided with physical security as well as a new identity and a place to live. The program applies to witnesses and close family members who may also be under threat. Some Americans are surprised to learn that many of the people in the program are former criminals who made a bargain with the government to avoid prosecution.
In order to be eligible for witness protection, the witness must provide major evidence relating to a grave felony. Witnesses in organized crime, drug running, and terrorism cases may be offered protection if they qualify. If the life of the witness is considered to be at risk because of his or her testimony, protection will be offered, and family members are frequently included as well. The threat of death or intimidation must be substantial, as protecting a witness is very expensive.
The Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 included a provision to establish the Witness Protection Program. Under the Act, the US Attorney General has final say over who will enter the program. Typically, a state attorney general recommends a witness for inclusion in the program, although witnesses may also apply for protection. The protection offered by the program is provided for life, as long as the witness does not commit a crime again, and the recidivism rate is around 17%. Some individual states also offer witness protection programs of their own.
In addition to providing physical security, the program also relocates witnesses after the trial and provides them with new identities. A small living stipend is offered until the witness finds a new job, and other assistance may be provided on an as-needed basis. When the witness is relocated, local law enforcement are informed if he or she was a criminal, so that they can keep an eye on the witness as well.
The program also includes restrictions. The witness is not allowed to return to his or her former hometown and is not supposed to contact former friends and acquaintances. Nearly every witness who has complied with the terms of the program has been successfully protected, although witnesses who broke with the terms have been killed.