A rather shocking story in USAToday details all the incentives -- including cash -- that people behind bars receive to provide prosecutors and police with information about other criminal activity -- commonly known as snitching.
The question, of course: should people be paid to snitch, and is that snitching trustworthy?
The prisoners in Atlanta's hulking downtown jail had a problem. They wanted to snitch for federal agents, but they didn't know anything worth telling.
Fellow prisoner Marcus Watkins, an armed robber, had the answer.
For a fee, Watkins and his associates on the outside sold them information about other criminals that they could turn around and offer up to federal agents in hopes of shaving years off their prison sentences. They were paying for information, but what they were really trying to buy was freedom.
"I didn't feel as though any laws were being broken," Watkins wrote in a 2008 letter to prosecutors. "I really thought I was helping out law enforcement."
That pay-to-snitch enterprise – documented in thousands of pages of court records, interviews and a stack of Watkins' own letters – remains almost entirely unknown outside Atlanta's towering federal courthouse, where investigators are still trying to determine whether any criminal cases were compromised. It offers a rare glimpse inside a vast and almost always secret part of the federal criminal justice system in which prosecutors routinely use the promise of reduced prison time to reward prisoners who help federal agents build cases against other criminals.
Snitching has become so commonplace that in the past five years at least 48,895 federal convicts — one of every eight — had their prison sentences reduced in exchange for helping government investigators, a USA TODAY examination of hundreds of thousands of court cases found. The deals can chop a decade or more off of their sentences.
How often informants pay to acquire information from brokers such as Watkins is impossible to know, in part because judges routinely seal court records that could identify them. It almost certainly represents an extreme result of a system that puts strong pressure on defendants to cooperate. Still, Watkins' case is at least the fourth such scheme to be uncovered in Atlanta alone over the past 20 years.
Those schemes are generally illegal because the people who buy information usually lie to federal agents about where they got it. They also show how staggeringly valuable good information has become – prices ran into tens of thousands of dollars, or up to $250,000 in one case, court records show.In the federal system, snitching is one of the only ways out of receiving a draconian mandatory minimum punishment, so even without payment, there is already enormous incentive to share information -- truthful or otherwise -- with prosecutors. The problem, of course, is that the very people who are most culpable and most deserving of a longer mandatory minimum term are also the most likely to escape that sentence because they have information to share. All too often, it's the small fry and low-level players with nothing to share who end up with the lengthy sentence.
And this national map of snitching, so to speak, raises another serious concern: snitching is undermining that coveted uniformity and consistency in sentencing that the federal guidelines were designed to foster. How much people snitch -- and in which kinds of cases -- varies wildly across the country. The Eastern District of Kentucky looks like the best place to snitch -- over 37% of those convicted got sentence reductions for sharing information, and nearly 60% of those cases involved charges of drug trafficking.