Becoming a Police Informant in Exchange for a Lighter Sentence
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.
There are all sorts of complexities and unintended consequences in this system. This is just a small part of it:
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.
Plea bargaining is illegal in many countries precisely because of the perverse incentives it sets up. I talk about this more in Liars and Outliers.