The Guilt Market

Criminal snitching threatens the integrity of the justice system.


Criminal snitches are a pervasive feature of the justice system that the public rarely sees. Every year thousands of offenders offer information to the government on street corners, in the back of police cruisers, in jails, and in courthouse offices. In exchange for the information, police and prosecutors tolerate those informants' crimes. Sometimes the informant avoids arrest altogether; in other cases, prosecutors reward cooperating defendants by filing lesser charges or seeking reduced sentences. Unlike traditional plea bargains, these deals often take place off the record, even as the information they generate is used to support warrants, arrests, and convictions.

The use of criminal informants is most common in drug enforcement, which relies on snitching at every stage of the legal process, from investigations to arrests to plea bargaining to sentencing. Since drug cases constitute about one-third of all state and federal dockets, informants are critical to the day-to-day operation of the justice system. But the snitching model is not limited to the war on drugs. It has spread to street crime, white collar crime, terrorism, and Internet investigations.

In short, the demand for helpful evidence has given rise to a massive underground marketplace in which government officials and suspects negotiate over criminal liability. These deals take place without the usual rules of record keeping, procedure, court oversight, and sometimes even defense counsel. All too often, the courts and the public never learn what offenses were committed or what deals were struck. 

Informants can be powerful crime-fighting tools, providing inside information about gangs, drug distribution, organized crime, corporate fraud, and political corruption. But the evidence offered by informants is notoriously unreliable. According to a 2004 study by researchers at Northwestern University Law School, more than 45 percent of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases were due to false informant testimony, making snitches "the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases."

A particularly pernicious form of snitching has taken root in prisons and jails. Jailhouse informants produce so many wrongful convictions that several states have concluded they can no longer be used without more stringent controls. The use of in-custody informants nevertheless remains widespread. The first public glimpse of the phenomenon was provided by the Los Angeles Grand Jury Report of 1990, which exposed a rampant culture of exchange and fabrication in the Los Angeles County Jail during the 1970s and '80s. Sheriffs, prosecutors, and inmates all understood that jailhouse snitches would be rewarded for coming up with information about other inmates, even when that information was clearly unreliable. Rewards ranged from dropped charges and shortened sentences to cash, jail privileges, even candy.

Federal law even has a special provision for jailhouse snitches. Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure offers sentence reductions to incarcerated offenders who provide information after they have started serving their sentences, a rule that Tucker Melancon, a U.S. district judge in Louisiana, has criticized as an invitation to fabrication. This rule created the conditions for the wrongful convictions of Ann Colomb and her three sons, Louisiana defendants who were found guilty of drug dealing in 2006 based on false information concocted by dozens of federal inmates trying to reduce their own sentences.

Drug informants constitute an even larger and arguably more troubling category than jailhouse snitches. In a highly publicized 2000 debacle, a federally funded drug task force made dozens of arrests in Hearne, Texas, based on information from a single informant—an addict with mental health problems who was trying to avoid new burglary charges. The resulting convictions were overturned after the informant was shown to have fabricated the evidence. The case triggered a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and inspired the 2009 movie American Violet. But law enforcement agencies still rely heavily on such witnesses, even though they have strong incentives to lie and even though the legal system is poorly equipped to verify their claims.

The good news is that there has been substantial movement toward reform. DNA exonerations and high-profile scandals like the ones in Los Angeles and Hearne have spurred legislators, journalists, and the public to question the shadowy practice of trading favors for evidence. California, Texas, Illinois, Florida, New York, and Washington state have considered or passed legislation restricting the use of informants, and several state commissions are studying the question. These efforts reflect the growing realization that widespread, unregulated informant deals are incompatible with a reliable, accountable, and transparent system of criminal justice. 

Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, is the author of Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice (NYU Press), which won the 2010 ABA Silver Gavel Award Honorable Mention for Books. She blogs at

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  1. Good luck on getting meaningful reform when prosecutors see snitches as a way to make a name for themselves by bagging bad guys. Even if legislatures try to rein it in, I suspect that sweetheart deals will just move further underground.

  2. They should use bitcoin to pay the snitches.

  3. I agree. Rewarding criminals with immunity from prosecution is appalling. If you don’t have enough evidence to convict, get the evidence or don’t go to trial.

    Besides, John Gotti knew how to control those pesky labor unions. Aw, how I miss the days when our criminals used to wear nice suits and throw Fourth of July parties for the entire neighborhood. The good old days.


    2. I agree with Gregory Smith. The LAW is the LAW, people. Our cops keep have a tough job of keeping these druggies behind bars. Extract any testimony and evidence needed to keep the rest of us safe. Once that’s done, throw the book at these lowlifes! Heck, who cares if they get roughed up, they’re criminals!

  4. In U.S. you snitch on criminals in Soviet Russia criminals… oh snap.

  5. Prosecutors don’t care about wrongful convictions. They want to be seen as “tough on crime” and getting high conviction rates… what do they care if innocent people are put away, have their lives and finances destroyed, and break up their families? We have to think of the children affected by the heinous crimes!

    1. +.00006 for broad brush bigotry.

      amend to “SOME prosecutors”

      i’ve met some prosecutors like you claim. i’ve met others who are very different.

      1. -1 case of krispy cremes for defensive overreaction

        1. not sure why i’d be defensive. i’m not a prosecutor. i like prosecutors and defense attorneys equally. i don’t at all side with one or the other. met some really cool guys on both sides

          1. The difference between you and me…..

            You say….”i like prosecutors and defense attorneys equally.”

            I say….”I hate prosecutors and defense attorneys equally.”

  6. In a totally unrelated note, I went to go see a movie recently and noticed there were previews for at least five new ‘cop’ TV shows coming out this fall. What’s the dileo w/ the network cop-fetish?

    1. Cop shows are good drama.

      Except for Cops. That’s just hilarious!

      1. This^

        I do not watch cop shows, however, I do watch Cops. It actually is hilarious on numerous levels.

        1. I watched an episode. Once. Five really out of shape donut-inspectors gave a foot chase to a black perp in an alley. When they dragged him back to the squad car, the car was rammed into the side of a dumpster.
          The idiot forgot to shove the stick into park.

          1. you can largely blame unions for this, fwiw. and police agencies.

            i don’t think cops should have a right to be out of shape. however, ime police unions won’t support physical fitness tests, and dept’s don’t wanna pay cops to workout on duty, which is the only way the unions will go for it.

            so, we continue to have fatfuck cops and weak as fuck cops and it’s a fucking disgrace.

            granted, i compete in strength sports, so i take this shit personally.

            1. “i don’t think cops should have a right to be out of shape.”

              Agreed. Nothing is more of an embarrassment than making a caricature of yourself and reinforcing a stereotype like that.

    2. What’s the dileo w/ the network cop-fetish?

      America’s pre-adolescent superhero fetish. Basically, we’re a nation of mental 11-year-olds.

  7. Randy be snitchin

    1. “Hey Patrice!”

      Haha, I was just watching these episodes of The Wire recently. Classic.

  8. Federal law even has a special provision for jailhouse snitches. Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure offers sentence reductions to incarcerated offenders who provide information after they have started serving their sentences, a rule that Tucker Melancon, a U.S. district judge in Louisiana, has criticized as an invitation to fabrication.

    Now, why would a person who was tried and convicted of a crime and serving a sentence lie in order to reduce the amount of time they were sentenced to?

    It boggles the mind.

    1. Uh.. Profit?

  9. I am at the point where I would feel good about assisting people who have committed crimes remain free, rather than help the state.

  10. in my experience, a substantial amount of “snitchin'” also just comes from people who … want to snitch… iow, they don’t get reduced sentence… they aren’t even charged with anything, etc.

    sometimes, they want to eliminate competition, or get revenge, or simply see “justice” served.

    of course, the more somebody has to gain from fingering somebody, the greater grains of salt you attach to their claims.

    cases like domestic violence, for example, where there is a strong nexus between the alleged victim and the suspect are a perfect example.

    a very substantial %age of crimes with kids (high school etc.) are solved not just because of snitches, but because they can’t keep their mouths shut and brag about it incessantly or even post evidence of their crimes on their myspace pages (those are my favorite)

    caught two fucksticks for burglary the other day because they blabbed to the wrong person about it.

    granted, the distinction between “witness” and “snitch” is somewhat subjective.

    imo, a snitch is a criminal looking for special treatment to turn somebody in

    a witness is somebody who has nothing of value to gain for giving the information

    1. A snitch is anyone who tells cops anything. One could snitch on themselves.

      1. so, if you witness somebody murdering somebody and you advise the police who did it, you are a “snitch?” by your terminology?

        1. Yes. I’d just as soon off that person myself. Not shitting.

      2. Jim and Bob agree to rob a bank together. Jim holds up the bank while Bob forces the teller, Frank, to stuff a sack with money. After the robbers leave with the money, Frank calls the cops and tells them everything he knows about the robbers.

        Frank is a witness.

        The cops catch Bob. Bob says “If you go easy on me, I’ll tell you where you can find Jim.

        Bob is a snitch.

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  13. It’s not a justice system, it’s the “legal industry”.

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