A must-read USA Today report published on December 14 (here) places a spotlight on a process rarely revealed to those outside the justice system: The role of the snitch in making federal cases…and in reducing sentences. While DNA proven wrongful convictions have shown that snitches can be a questionable source for information, the use of snitches continues to be widespread. So much so that credible case information is a currency for getting out of jail sooner.
Imprisoned bank robber Marcus Watkins is not the first to recognize that there could be a profitable business in selling case details to defendants and convicts desperate to reduce their sentences.
As reported, “For a fee, Watkins and his associates on the outside sold them (other inmates) information about other criminals that they could turn around and offer up to federal agents in hopes of shaving off their prison sentences.”
At stake: a decade or more of prison time that could be clipped off one’s sentence. That makes a detail on a case or suspect very valuable, especially in a system that provides little opportunity to escape a long sentence.
According to article, in federal cases, “Nearly everyone charged is convicted. They usually face the prospect of a lengthy prison term, driven by long minimum sentences for drug crimes and sentencing rules that leave judges little leeway to make exceptions – unless they cooperate. Often, becoming an informant is the only chance defendants have.”
A spokesman for the Atlanta U.S. Attorney’s office said that an investigation is ongoing to determine if any cases were compromised by Watkins’ enterprise.
USA Today’s report should at least prompt a broader discussion and re-consideration of this perfect storm for compromised justice. When plea bargaining creates a currency in information traded for reduced prison time—especially in a justice system in which conviction rates are high and mandatory sentences long—we must question this practice’s cost in compromised credibility not only in each case but in the justice system itself.