Friday, November 19, 2010

Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice

Informants are an important part of criminal investigations and prosecutions. In exchange for leniency or other benefits, one criminal can provide information that helps to convict others. But the use of informants bears risks for the integrity of the system and the safety of the community. Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola L.A., explores the practice and recommends reforms in Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice (KF9665 .N38 2009 at Classified Stacks).

Rather than summarize, let me refer you to the detailed table of contents, the publisher's summary, and the introduction.
(In Snitching, Natapoff discusses only criminal informants. "Snitching" does not apply to the testimony of victims, bystanders, or other witnesses.)

Some of the problems discussed are familiar: snitches are unreliable; many wrongful convictions were based on testimony from informants; not all defendants have the same access to the benefits available to some informants. Natapoff also looks beyond criminal justice to look at the effect on poor, urban communities where a significant number of people are informing or being pressured to inform. Criminal justice may be the residents' dominant experience of government, and they see crimes that go unpunished (because the perpetrators cut deals); moreover, violence escalates.

I enjoyed the whole book, but if you have limited time, just read the recommendations in Chapter 8.

For more, see Natapoff's blog, Snitching.

One thing I appreciated in the book was the treasure trove of endnotes. Here are some of the intriguing sources Natapoff cites:

Do I have time to read all of these law review articles and books? Heck, no. But I might look some of them up sometime, and even knowing about them is worthwhile on some level. And since I've listed them here, maybe someone who reads this post will have a head start on some interesting and important research.

Holder reverses Bush policy on DNA waivers

Since 2004, the Justice Dept has had a policy encouraging prosecutors to have defendants who entered into plea bargains to waive their right to have DNA testing, even of new evidence. Now that policy has been reversed. Jerry Markon Attorney General Eric Holder reverses Bush policy on DNA waivers, Wash. Post. Nov. 18, 2010.

The Bush Administration opposed the Innocence Protection Act of 2004, Pub. L. 108-405, title IV, codified at 18 U.S.C. § § 3600, 3600A. And so after the law was passed, this policy was put in place.

Holder's memorandum is here.