« Overruling trial court, split Mississippi Supreme Court reverses death sentence on Atkins claim | Main | Intriguing new comments from President Obama on federal pot prohibition policy »

December 14, 2012

"Federal prisoners use snitching for personal gain"

Informants-chartThe title of this post is the headline of this big new article appearing in USA Today concerning the general operation of 5K substantial assistance sentencing departures in the federal courts.  The lengthy piece gets started with a notable tale of a "pay-to-snitch" scheme emerging from Atlanta's federal courts and local jails.  Here is how the article begins:

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.

John Horn, the second in command of Atlanta's U.S. attorney's office, said the "investigation on some of these matters is continuing" but would not elaborate. Prosecutors have said they were troubled that informants were paying for some of the secrets they passed on to federal agents.  Judges are outraged.  But the inmates who operated the schemes have repeatedly alleged that agents knew all along what they were up to, and sometimes even gave them the information they sold.  Prosecutors told a judge in October that an investigation found those accusations were false.  Still, court records show, agents kept interviewing at least one of Watkins' customers even after the FBI learned of the scheme.

The risks are obvious.  If the government rewards paid-for information, wealthy defendants could potentially buy early freedom.  Because such a system further muddies the question of how informants — already widely viewed as untrustworthy — know what they claim to know, "individual cases can be undermined and the system itself is compromised," U.S. Justice Department lawyers said in a 2010 court filing.

In addition to additional cool graphics and charts and more information about how this "pay-to-snitch" schemes operated it Atlanta, USA Today also has produced this great dynamic interactive graphic, titled "Informants trade for shorter sentences."  The graphic (which I sure wish could be replicated by the US Sentencing Commission for all federal sentencing data) allows one to see basic cooperation statistics in each and every federal district just by moving around the map.

December 14, 2012 at 10:04 AM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e2017d3eca35cc970c

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Federal prisoners use snitching for personal gain":

Comments

Really ineresting article, you are really doing a great job.

Posted by: Lifestyle | Dec 15, 2012 10:01:14 AM

Indeed snitches will fabricate any story to save themselves and innocent people suffer for it. Please be very careful in believing what you here. Make a case if you can, but please make it a good case.

Posted by: widow | Dec 15, 2012 2:37:05 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB