Snitches and Drugs
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior EditorIt's bad enough that the U.S. government's war on drug users often treats them more harshly than those committing violent crimes. It's worse that those who are only slightly involved or who don't even touch drugs are also getting caught in the zero-tolerance net. The government snares the innocent and guilty alike with its snitching policy.
For those who are not up to speed on US crime lingo, to "snitch" means to be an informer for the police. If you are arrested and you provide the police with information on others who may be accomplices or who may have violated the law, you snitch on them. It's an old thieves' slang word that originally meant to steal something. The informer "steals" from those he is fingering by reducing his prison time at the expense of their prison time. A snitch in time saves time.
During the past few years, a third of those accused of drug trafficking received reduced prison time and sometimes no time at all by snitching on others. Informants have become a key tool in putting drug users in prison. Those accused are usually small- scale users and dealers, since these are the ones most snitches know about. The result is that American prisons are filled with many small-time offenders serving long sentences.
The worst part of this is that the word of a snitch is weighed as heavily as physical evidence in court. According to the information in www.pacifica.org/programs/democracy_now/, "people can be convicted of drug charges solely on the word of snitches, without any substantiating physical evidence."
The PBS television program "Frontline" will show a documentary on drug snitching this coming Tuesday, January 12, called "Snitch" (my local PBS station is playing it at 10 PM, but in others, it will play at 9 PM). The show looks at how mandatory minimum sentencing laws combined with snitching are giving minor violators harsh prison sentences. The program also raises the question of whether "winning" the war on drugs means losing our heritage of justice.
Besides the Pacifica web site mentioned above, another web site related to unjust prison sentences is www.famm.org by Families Against Mandatory Minimums. FAMM seeks to reform mandatory sentencing laws that do not allow for judicial discretion according to circumstances. Its web site www.famm.org has details on the Frontlines program as well as recent articles in magazines and newspapers.
Sometimes innocent people are accused and put in prison, because the snitches are notoriously poor sources of information. Others get put in prison for minor assistance such as driving for friends who use drugs. Snitching violates the motto, "honor among thieves." Criminals hurt the public, but normally they protect one another in their own self-interest. The snitch is the lowest of the low, one who violates the code of the underworld. The snitch is not even a smart criminal, since he got caught.
Since the informant gains by snitching, it is in his interest to finger others whether they are guilty or not, and the innocent person or one who is only incidentally involved can then be put in prison just on the word of an unreliable informant. This turns the cherished anglo-American legal system on its head. No evidence is required to put someone in prison for many years, just the word of a self-serving criminal loser.
When drug dealers snitch, often the result is that the prison sentence of someone heavily involved in drug dealing gets reduced, while those less involved or not involved at all get put in prison. The whole concept of letting the punishment fit the crime gets turned on its head. American taxpayers then pay heavily to incarcerate the little fish while the big fish keep on drug dealing. Is this what the American public wants?
For more on this issue and program, see also www.pbs.org/frontline, and for information on what you can do about this problem, see www.famm.org. Let's put an end to mandatory minimum sentences for drug charges, and let's put due process back into our justice system by requiring more evidence than just the word of a weasely snitcher.
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Copyright 1999 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.