A Conversation with Alexandra Natapoff

Alexandra Natapoff is a professor of law at Loyola Law School. She is a nationally recognized expert on snitching in the criminal justice system and has written articles and given testimony before the U.S. Congress on confidential informant practices. Natapoff is the author of “Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice” (NYU Press, 2009). We spoke to her about the practice of using snitches by prosecutors in criminal trials. Natapoff was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

You write in your book that using snitches is about more than gaining information about crimes and solving those cases.
The book is about a public policy, which is the government’s use of criminal suspects and criminal defendants to get information in exchange for deals — leniency for those informants’ crimes, money or other benefits. But the practice is really a market for liability, guilt and information.

Does this market exist for the purpose of gaining convictions?
Obtaining information to get convictions is one of its justifications. But it’s also a way of resolving the cases of informants and managing overwhelming caseloads and dockets. It has become the core of plea-bargaining, particularly in drug cases. It also has become a built-in feature of criminal organizations. Organizations know that individuals may become snitches and may use cooperation to reduce their sentences. Perhaps most important, the use of criminal informants has eroded the integrity of the way the government handles questions of guilt.

How so?
The use of informants destabilizes the meaning of law enforcement. It undermines the integrity of the process by which people can count on the government to go after perpetrators and treat them even-handedly and in a public and transparent way.

How does using snitches affect suspects?
The use of criminal informants influences the way that the criminal justice population understands their own options. We know that high-level criminal offenders understand their negotiation options. A leader of a drug ring has more information and is likely to get more benefit from his, or occasionally her, cooperation than a low-level player who has very little information to trade. In fact, the use of criminal informants is a regressive policy in the sense that it rewards the worst wrongdoers because they have the most information. One of my recommendations is to start counting the cases in which the informants provide valuable information so we can assess the value and benefit of these deals to the criminal justice system at large.

Are people acting to reform the policy of using snitches?
It’s an exciting time for reform. State legislatures and innocence commissions are re-examing the criminal justice system based on citizen complaints, journalistic inquiries, individual cases of injustice and the advocacy of families. So change is happening, but from the ground up in a piecemeal fashion. It will take the government — state government, federal government, the Department of Justice — to re-examine this public policy and legislate reform comprehensively. But reform will not stop just because the government hasn’t taken up the issue. Reform is happening right now.