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How snitching erodes criminal justice

Guest Blogger

Criminal informants are a powerful weapon in law enforcement. Snitches typically provide incriminating information about someone in exchange for lighter treatment for themselves. But there is a dark side to the popular practice. In "Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice," published by New York University Press, Alexandra Natapoff explores the hidden, unregulated tradeoffs that officials increasingly accept. Natapoff, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, isn't seeking a ban on plea bargaining but she wants to raise public awareness of the practice's disturbing results and encourage improvements. Natapoff blogs at


By Alexandra Natapoff

Although nearly invisible to the public, criminal informants are everywhere in the American justice system. Every year, thousands of offenders -- from drug addicts to Wall Street investors -- avoid punishment for their crimes by giving the government information. While informant use is most prevalent in drug enforcement, suspects snitch their way out of all kinds of cases -- from murder to child pornography.

The practice also affects each stage of the criminal process: from the way police handle suspects on street corners, to a prison culture that promises inmates better deals if they come up with information about each other. Informants heavily influence FBI investigations of organized crime and terrorism, while cooperation deals are central features of modern prosecutorial decision-making, plea bargaining, and sentencing.

In other words, snitching is a big part of how our criminal system really works.

At the same time, snitching is a fundamentally unregulated and secretive arena of government authority. Police can decline to arrest an offender in exchange for a tip, and never tell a soul. Prosecutors can drop or reduce charges against a cooperating informant and never record, explain, or justify the decision.

While cooperation deals struck by high-profile offenders such as lobbyist Jack Abramoff or Enron’s Andrew Fastow typically become public, the vast majority of arrangements remain under wraps. Indeed, state and local governments lack basic mechanisms for keeping track of the informants they create, the crimes they commit, and the crimes they solve. To its credit, the federal government has begun to regulate and keep records in this arena, driven by the FBI’s historic struggles with informant abuse and corruption.

Perhaps the best recognized danger associated with criminal informants is their infamous unreliability. In a recent study, Northwestern University Law School estimated that lying informants accounted for over 45 percent of all wrongful capital convictions, making “snitches the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases.”

In a case that led to an ACLU lawsuit and inspired the film “American Violet,” a young criminal informant in Hearne, Texas, sold false information to a federally-funded drug task force, leading to the arrest and prosecution of dozens of innocent people.

Above and beyond their unreliability, criminal informants can also have devastating consequences for poor urban neighborhoods, including more crime, violence, and distrust. In Washington D.C., for example, it is estimated that a staggering 50 percent of the young male population is under criminal justice supervision, much of it drug-related. Because law enforcement routinely pressures drug arrestees to become informants, it is commonplace for offenders in these neighborhoods to snitch. One consequence of this policy is that working informants tend to continue to offend, making their widespread presence a potential source of new crime and insecurity.

It is an exciting time for informant reform. Hearings in both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have been held, and federal legislation proposed. Numerous states have passed or considered new laws, including California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois. As snitching gets the scrutiny it deserves, the law and culture of this secretive arena is certain to change.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  March 2, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: criminal informants and the justice system; snitching and justice  
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