JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — Gov. Parson could soon sign a new bill into law giving money to law enforcement agencies to protect witnesses.
The governor’s signature comes after both the House and the Senate recently passed House Bill 66, the creation of a witness protection fund.
This bill is one of the six provisions the governor asked for during the special session to reduce violent crime in the state. The witness protection program allows law enforcement agencies across the state to apply for money to protect a witness who might feel nervous to testify in a case.
Rep. Jon Patterson, R-Jackson Co., is the sponsor of the bill and said there’s currently nothing like this in the state.
“It will not give them (law enforcement) a source of funding, a major source of funding, that they can tap into and actually start to protect witnesses and go after the criminals that are doing these violent crimes,” Patterson said. “This is one piece that we can use to catch criminals and get them behind bars so that we can start making this place a safer state for everybody.”
Missouri’s General Assembly signed off on the new witness protection program and the bill is now headed to the governor’s desk. The Pretrial Witness Protection Fund would be monitored by the Department of Public Safety in hopes to reduce violent crime in the state.
“Law enforcement can then use the money for housing, transportation, for getting these people out of harm’s way and protecting their identity sot that they can testify but not be in danger themselves,” Patterson said. “You know violent crime is a huge issue in our state and it’s starting to affect everybody more and more.”
The new program is considered a bipartisan effort in both the House and the Senate, but some lawmakers are concerned about funding the program.
“There is no money right now, this just forms the fund,” Patterson said. “What will most likely happen is it will be a combination of our general revenue and a combination of federal funds.”
Previously, the House Budget Committee Chairman, Rep. Cody Smith, R-Jasper Co., said a second special session would be needed to secure funding, but Patterson believes it will happen during veto session.
“During veto session we will have a concurrent session and we can appropriate monies to go to this fund at that time,” Patterson said. “When the governor signs it, it will become a law immediately and we will be able to start funding this and law enforcement agencies from across the state will be able to start applying.”
Currently the bill is on the governor’s desk waiting for his signature, but he wants to see lawmakers make a decision on funding.
“We’re going to see whatever funding we can get, to have that capability to be able to get that out,” Parson said during a press conference two weeks ago. “Simply to make sure that the witness protection program is working as soon as possible, but again the legislators are going to have to have a part to play because we’re going to need that budget money next year if we don’t have it this year.”
Patterson said law enforcement doesn’t have to wait for the appropriations to apply for the funds. As soon as the governor signs off, they can start the process.
“Once they get the monies, they can use those dollars to protect witnesses to come forward at a later date and testify against criminals,” Patterson said.
The hopes of this new witness protection fund is to reduce violent crime in the state.
“If we could get witnesses to come forward and testify what they saw, we could start getting some of these cases closed,” Patterson said.
Patterson said he hopes the general assembly will appropriate $1 million during veto session next week. He said the fund was originally appropriated for in this year’s budget but was removed due to the pandemic.
“My goal would be to have as much money as law enforcement agencies think they need,” Patterson said. “So, we will start hopefully with a million dollars and look at it year after year.”
Patterson said law enforcement would have to apply for the program through the Department of Public Safety, but the state treasurer would manage the funds. He said the application process would include police answering questions such as, why they are applying, what the witness is testifying too and how they are going to protect the witness.
Parson’s spokeswoman said Monday should not confirm when the governor would sign HB 66.
Veto session starts Wednesday, Sept. 16.