“While this is not Colombia, it is really, really, bad,” said one judge about the estimated violence in this country committed against witnesses and informants, whose names have been easily found in searchable PACER documents. What can be done to protect these individuals as well as the rights of defendants?
According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, a Survey of Harm to Cooperators by the Federal Judicial Center revealed that over a three-year period, more than 700 people who have cooperated with the government have been threatened, wounded or killed. Incredibly, this estimate is considered to be low.
Contributing to this retaliation is access to PACER. Not by federal inmates themselves, who aren’t permitted, but by those on the outside, who then feed the key information on informants back into prison.
The WSJ reports that inmates can also request copies of their sentencing files. In some prisons, inmates force other inmates to post these documents on their cells for reading by others.
So what can be done? The survey concluded that the responses don’t point to an immediate answer.
Though the direction that policy should take is not clear from the information provided in this survey, the scope of the problem is. Efforts to protect cooperating information, while in some instances successful, have not eliminated the problem of harm to cooperators.
The WSJ reports on one possible solution.
“One approach is to mask cooperation by changing how dockets are publicly displayed, aiming to make the two types of dockets — ones in which a defendant is a cooperator and ones in which he is not — less distinguishable to outside eyes.”
But the efforts to increase security in the judicial system concerns defense lawyers who, naturally, want to protect their clients’ right to due process.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons, too, is looking into increasing security within their walls, both for cooperators and the more vulnerable in the prison population.
Conclusion: It’s an ongoing process.