A Look At The BIG BUSINESS OF SNITCHING
At least 48,895 federal convicts — one of every eight — had their prison sentences reduced in exchange for helping government investigators, probe shows.
USA Today Released an article on how inmates in prisons are snitching on other inmates or outsiders for a small fee… No one likes snitches.
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ATLANTA – 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.