LA Lacks Clear Rules On Jail Inmate Witness Safety


Inmates who agree to testify in criminal cases risk retaliatory attacks, but the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department lacks a clear policy to identify witnesses in the county jails and ensure their safety, reports the Los Angeles Times. Jail officials simply label them as “keep-away” inmates when they enter the system. Those identified as keep-aways are separated from the people they are testifying against. They are not isolated in the jails as protected witnesses. Nor are they kept away from the friends or associates of the people they are testifying against. Even if a judge has ordered a witness protected, those classified as keep-aways typically are housed in cells holding many inmates, and many might walk unescorted to the medical clinic, visiting area, or attorney rooms. Witnesses and the inmates from whom they are being protected can cross paths.

After five jail slayings and other assaults in the last seven months, inquiries are underway into the security of the jails run by Sheriff Lee Baca. Sheriff’s officials say there is no way to know about everyone who may pose a threat to an inmate witness. Said Sheriff’s Chief Chuck Jackson, “We don’t know who today’s enemy and tomorrow’s friend is. It only takes one day for someone to turn against you.”

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Terry A. Green does not tell the Sheriff’s Department how to protect witnesses. “I just care that the people be protected” to ensure their safety and so they feel safe in testifying truthfully, said Green. “Is it a complex system? Yes. Is it more than just keeping A away from B? Yes.” Green said. “No system is perfect … but we’re going to have to be pretty close to perfect.”


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