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Russia/Poland: Checkbook Justice Entices More Crime Stoppers

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 31 October 1997(RFE/RL) -- The president of an international crime fighting organization says Russia and Poland are interested in crime-fighting programs that offer cash rewards for information leading to the arrest and indictment of suspected criminals.

Alan Pratt, president of a U.S.-based, non-profit organization called Crime Stoppers International, told RFE/RL that the two countries have made inquiries about the programs -- dubbed "checkbook justice,"

He says his group helps communities worldwide set up the programs. Crime Stoppers also maintains a central data base of information and holds annual conferences on crime cases of special interest.

Pratt says the organization -- which has its headquarters in the southwestern U.S. state of New Mexico -- has chapters in more than ten countries around the world, including Canada, Australia, Great Britain and South Africa.

Pratt says the whole idea of offering money for information about criminal activity has been wildly successful and helped convict murderers, rapists, drug smugglers and other law-breakers.

He said criminals brought to justice through the Crime Stoppers program are nearly always convicted because of strong, solid evidence. "We have a 97 percent conviction rate worldwide," he said.

The Crime Stoppers Internet page lists some impressive statistics. Since it was founded in 1979, the organization has helped clear 609,042 cases, paid out over 42 million dollars in reward money, recovered more than 2,000 million dollars worth of narcotics, and solved 8,334 homicides.

But would cash rewards-based programs work in communities in Poland and Russia which have a history of mistrusting the police?

Says Pratt: "I think our programs will work anywhere in the world as long as the community is interested enough to work together to solve crime in their neighborhoods. I believe that once people see the program in action and realize it can do something for them, they will want it."

Pratt adds that in the case of Russia, Poland and other countries of the former Soviet bloc, the most important factor to emphasize is that Crime Stoppers chapters are strictly civilian-run.

Pratt says: "We have to explain in detail how law enforcement agencies and local police fit in, but we have to make it clear that it's the community that's running the show."

In fact, offering money for information is becoming a popular trend in criminal justice in America, not only with local police departments, but with government agencies as well.

The U.S. State Department has offered millions of dollars in reward money for information on terrorist acts or other threats against U.S. citizens.

Perhaps the most successful case to date is that of Mir Aimal Kansi, a murder suspect alleged in 1993 to have killed two CIA employees outside the company headquarters near Washington.

Kansi was apprehended on the Afghan-Pakistan border last summer in large part thanks to a substantial reward offered by the State Department for information resulting in his capture.

The State Department is also offering hefty cash rewards for information leading to the apprehension of several other suspected terrorists, including two men wanted in connection with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the terrorists who kidnapped and murdered three Americans taken hostage in Lebanon during the 1980's.

The appeal of cash-for-information programs, says Pratt, is that money talks in any language, generating interest and sometimes greed on the part of a suspect's associates, friends, neighbors, and family members. Pratt says reward money also heightens public awareness and sometimes jogs the memory of witnesses who may not have realized they saw a crime.

The way the program works, says Pratt, is that volunteer citizens set up a Crime Stoppers chapter in their community.

Each chapter has a dual goal to help local police departments crack tough cases, and fight community apathy on crime.

Pratt says once a crime is committed, Crime Stoppers may offer a cash reward for any information leading to the arrest or conviction of the perpetrator. The amount of the reward is set by the local board of the Crime Stoppers' branch.

People with information about a crime are instructed to call a local number. They can remain anonymous and are assigned a special number for identification. Pratt says the caller is usually told to call back in a couple of weeks to see if the tip resulted in an arrest If it did, they are eligible for the reward without ever having to give their name.

Says Pratt: "anonymity is certainly the main attraction of Crime Stoppers. Your name won't be in the newspaper, you don't have to go to court and you are not subjected to possible retribution. But you can still get the cash reward."

Crime Stoppers International is a completely volunteer organization. Money is generated via fundraising, private donations and membership dues, he adds.

Pratt says any community can join. Communities of a million or more people are asked to pay membership dues of about 600 dollars per year, and communities with less than 100,000 inhabitants pay about 150 dollars.

In exchange for their dues, Pratt says the communities become part of an international family with one goal -- working together to fight crime.