Eight million dollars in state funding to help relocate witnesses and victims of crime in Baltimore over the past three years hasn’t been spent due to a bureaucratic standstill between the governor’s office and city prosecutors.

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, which receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from the state annually, in 2019 sought and received additional funding to assist victims and witnesses from the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services. The $2 million would more than double its existing budget for victims and witnesses, and was to be re-upped each year after being spent down.

But the money hasn’t been touched for four years running, because the city has been telling the state that it needs to give the money to them as a grant, which would then go to the city’s Board of Estimates for approval. The state has been unwilling to do so.

“Since February 2020, our office has convened numerous discussions with [the state] regarding the need to adhere to the city’s grant acceptance guidelines to responsibly accept victim and witness grant funds from the state. Despite our repeated attempts to resolve the issue, [the state] has been unwilling to conform to the normal Board of Estimates requirements for grant awards, thereby blocking our access to the funds,” Zy Richardson, the spokesperson for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, said in a statement.

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Shantay Jackson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, said officials continue to try to work out the issue, including convening a meeting just last month. “We absolutely are trying to push as hard as we can,” Jackson said.

State officials, however, seem unwilling to budge, saying the state budget does not specify the money needs to be a grant and that prosecutors have not demonstrated to them that the funding needs to be a grant. They say there are already suitable accountability measures in place.

“We look forward to briefing the incoming State’s Attorney on the available witness protection funding,” said Maureen Ryan, a spokesperson for the governor’s coordinating office.

Protecting witnesses and victims has been a cornerstone of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s tenure, promoted with billboards and ads reading, “You are not alone.” The office doubled the number of victims’ advocates, while the number of people the office reports having assisted annually has grown during Mosby’s tenure, from 3,200 people in 2015 to 12,600 last year, the office said.

But according to a recently released report from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Public Safety Partnership, prosecutors only provide assistance to witnesses in pending, charged cases, while Baltimore Police have just one detective assigned to their own witness relocation unit.

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The report found a “pervasive sense” that protection from prosecutors was contingent on testifying, with the pressure felt acutely by those experiencing poverty or a sense of desperation for such assistance. Those interviewed for the report said there was also a general lack of safe houses and other short- and long-term housing and relocation options, lack of financial support for witnesses and their family members, including for food, transportation and other survival needs.

Glenn Fueston, at the time the director of the governor’s crime office, wrote in a 2020 memo obtained by The Baltimore Banner that the additional $2 million award was intended to cover the gap in assistance to witnesses who are not assisting in a criminal prosecution.

He wrote that prosecutors had cited “manpower and case management issues” as a reason that they were providing assistance only to cooperating witnesses in charged cases.

“Under current practices, witnesses will not be provided the safety and security efforts that relocation provides, until after they have already made the decision to cooperate with police, and only if the case reaches the State’s Attorney’s Office,” Fueston wrote. He said the result was “a substantial and critical gap in relocation needs throughout the city for witnesses during investigative process.”

With the agencies unable to agree on how to get the money to prosecutors, Fueston suggested the $2 million go toward police.

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“Any reversion of funding will not be a result of a failure on the part of my office, but will be a direct reflection on the inactions of your offices failing to properly and effectively utilize this funding for a second year in a row,” he wrote.

Mosby responded two days later, saying her office “would not be able to accept such significant funding without the award being approved by the city’s law department and budget office and the board of estimates.” She said state officials were being unresponsive to efforts to push the money through.

“This unresponsiveness serves as a direct reflection on the inaction of your office to follow through on its purported commitment to the residents of the City of Baltimore and in no way suggests any failures on our part,” Mosby wrote.

She also balked at funding being directed to the Baltimore Police Department, saying its one-detective unit did not have resources in place to handle an influx of witnesses in need of relocation.

“Without an office of this nature established and in place within BPD,” Mosby said, “the effective managing of victims and witnesses ‘pre-charging’ including the processing of hundreds of hotel invoices generated monthly by these individuals and their families — may well be a herculean task that has the potential to threaten the effective management of any funds provided by the state for this purpose.”

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The city state’s attorney’s office was already receiving $360,000 in annual grants from the state, as well as another $110,000 from court fees that the state divides up among prosecutors’ offices across the state.

Those fees pass through the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, and the state wanted the $2 million to also pass through the MSAA. Prosecutors say the money needs to be accepted as a grant, with accountability measures in place, but the state says the MSAA itself is the state’s accountability mechanism for distribution of the money.

Steve Kroll, the executive director of the MSAA, declined requests for an interview.

City officials appeared to agree with the SAO’s insistence that the money be received as a grant in a March 2022 email, provided by the State’s Attorney’s Office under a public records request. “For some reason, the state wants to give the SAO money without getting BOE approval, i.e. just cut us a check for $1.8M directly,” wrote Philip S. Gear, saying city budget director Robert Cenname said that the “state’s request is unacceptable and the money has to come to us as a grant.”

In a follow-up email, Gear wrote that he was having an “agonizingly slow conversation with [the] Law [department] about getting an opinion on the state’s request to avoid the BOE process for receipt of victim witness and relocation funding.”

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justin.fenton@thebaltimorebanner.com

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Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

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