Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Snitching and a Feminist Curiosity

One of my favorite blogs and my favorite dealing with Texas issues has posted about the growing dependence of law enforcement on confidential (often paid--either in cash or in reduced punishment) informants: snitches.

Grits for Breakfast discusses a Dec 2005 Slate feature by Prof. Alexandra "Sasha" Natapoff of Loyola Law School in the neighboring state of LA. She's made some to do about snitching and the over reliance of law enforcement on this "extreme form of plea bargain."

As a death penalty abolitionist, this bit from the Slate feature really piqued my interest:
Snitches are famously unreliable: A 2004 study by the Northwestern University Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions reveals that 46 percent of wrongful death penalty convictions are due to snitch misinformation making snitches the leading cause of wrongful conviction in capital cases. Jailhouse snitches routinely concoct information; the system gives them every incentive to do so.

Los Angeles snitch Leslie White infamously avoided punishment for his crimes for years by fabricating confessions and attributing them to his cellmates.

The leading cause for wrongful death penalty convictions. Those are pretty bad odds when the stakes (life or death) are so high.

Prof. Natapoff's Slate piece concludes:
While snitching will never be abolished, the practice could be substantially improved, mostly by lifting the veil of secrecy that shields law-enforcement practices from public scrutiny.

Trying to turn that reasonable assertion into a reality, Prof. Natapoff has posted an 11-page example of a Motion Requesting a Snitch Reliability Hearing (Word doc) in federal court on her faculty webpage.

One of the questions this rasies for me is: What can a feminist curiosity bring to this information? Well, who comprises the fastest growing segment of the prison population? It's women. As of June 2005, women in prison numbered 106,174 (this is after the November 2004 DOJ information that women in prison topped 100,000 for the first time in US history). According to the Drug Policy Alliance, "Since 1986 the number of women in prison has increased 400%. For women of color, the rise is 800%." The bulk of this increase comes from drug-related arrests.

How does this relate to Prof. Natapoff's discussion of snithces? The "war on drugs" is the law enforcement quagmire that has given rise to the over-reliance on confidential informants. Women involved with (or coerced into--see "Drug Couriers and Mandatory Minimum Sentences") drug running or use become perfect fall gals. DPA goes on to say:
The same sentencing policies that are used to punish high-level traffickers-those policies that carry extremely harsh mandatory minimum sentences-are used disproportionately against these women. Since women, as drug couriers, are often the 'mules' of a highly elaborate and hierarchical drug trade, they rarely possess information useful to prosecutors. This precludes them from benefiting from mandatory minimum law provisions which allow for dramatic decreases in sentences in exchange for "snitching" - i.e. assisting in the prosecution of others.

So increasing numbers of women get punished in a dispropotionate manner because they will readily be turned over by their "co-conspiritors" and they lack access to information concerning drug "king-pins." On a related note, Elaine Bartlett, who was sentenced under the extrodinarily harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York, said this in a 2004 interview:
I did 16 years in Bethel Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum facility for women. I have yet to meet one kingpin. That's not who is being affected by the laws.


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