Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice is an essential look into an unsavory aspect of the United States’ criminal justice system–the use of informants and cooperators. Author Ethan Brown traces the use of informants to the rise of “tough on crime” laws in the 1970s and 1980s that emphasized tough sentences to fight crime, particularly drugs. With the advent of tough laws and penalties, the government began to offer incentives under section 5K1.1 of the United States Sentencing Commission to entice individuals to cooperate. In exchange for their cooperation, criminals had their only real chance at the possibility of lessening their sentence.
Snitch looks at the use of informants in a number of criminal cases–drug cases, murder cases, racketeering, fraud, and more–to show that while the specifics of the crimes always very, the use of informants is often strikingly similar. It is all too common to see prosecutors rely on testimony from informants who have negotiated for sentencing reductions. While this automatically should raise questions about self-interest in the informants, prosecutors are often hesitant to admit such concerns and are even more reluctant to admit previous crimes of informants.
For those of us reading Snitch from a left perspective, it is surprising that Brown does not include any discussion of the role of informants in eco-terrorism cases. In recent years, eco-terrorism prosecutions have relied heavily on government informants and FBI infiltrators, leading to substantial prison sentences. Informants have been instrumental in cases known as “The Green Scare” and are facilitating a new wave of repression directed at political activists. Many of the questions raised throughout Snitch are relevant to eco-terrorism informants, particularly questions of accuracy and motivation.
To combat the problems with a justice system that is overly reliant on informants, Brown advocates revising section 5K1.1 of the USSC to make prosecutors more accountable and to have increased oversight of informants. He calls for penalties aimed at deterring lying informants and lessening the great degree of discretion that prosecutors have in developing cooperation deals. Along with it, Brown suggests that the US consider revamping sentencing guidelines to address the fact that large numbers of federal prisoners are serving decades or life behind bars. Many of these recommendations are advocated by Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions who has been attempting to work on the issue in the Senate.
Snitch offers an important overview of a topic that is often portrayed in a one-sided fashion in the corporate media. Locally, we have seen an effort aimed at combating the “stop snitching” movement, but there has been little discussion of the substantive reasons behind the “stop snitching” campaign. Once people understand the problems of heavy reliance on informants for convictions, the “stop snitching” sentiment starts to make a lot of sense–no matter how reactionary it might be. While nobody wants to see violent criminals get away with their crimes, nobody wants to see innocent people locked up by a system that relies on a faulty system of informants and cooperators. Brown does an excellent job of describing the problems with the current system and offering some solutions. Hopefully with the issue out in the open, there will be some movement on the sentencing reforms that he speaks of at the conclusion of the book.
Ethan Brown, Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice, (PublicAffairs, 2007).