The story has become a familiar one in urban areas like Trenton.
A man or woman is murdered in plain view in a densely-populated city neighborhood, yet investigating police cannot find a single witness willing to go on the record and finger the murderers.
Those witnessing the act won’t talk, due to fear of retribution from gang members willing to end the life of people they believe are talking to cops.
This week New Jersey Sen. Shirley Turner and Sen. Ray Lesniak sponsored legislation trying to tackle this growing problem, which would raise the stakes for those taking part in witness intimidation and tampering by increasing penalties.
Bill S-267/A-503 was released from the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee this week, and would strengthen penalties for those convicted of witness bribery, intimidation, tampering, and hindering.
“Our prosecutors are having a tougher and tougher time getting witnesses to testify in court cases when the defendant is a member of a street gang,” said Sen. Turner, D-Mercer, in a statement. “These gangs have effectively paralyzed our neighborhoods by threatening retribution towards who ‘snitches.’ We need to stand with witnesses and let them know that the law will protect them and their families.”
They hope the laws will allow more witnesses to come forward and suppress a problem that has been significantly hampering crime investigations in New Jersey cities.
“Witness intimidation is getting so bad that many times, prosecutors will not pursue a criminal case unless there are multiple witnesses to the crime,” said Sen. Lesniak, D-Union, in a statement. “Many witness fear for their lives, especially when gang members are the accused individuals. We need to reverse this trend so that prosecutors can put more violent criminals behind bars.
The bill works mainly through raising the degree of established offenses, with witness tampering becoming a first degree offense in cases involving those who bear witness to the most heinous of crimes, listed under the No Early Release Act.
Also, retaliation against a witness or informant would become a second degree offense instead of a fourth degree offense.
The bill now heads to the New Jersey State Senate, after receiving unanimous approval in committee.