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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Harris County, TX offering jailhouse snitches $5000

More Texas news. The Harris County jail has a new "Crime Stoppers" program aimed at inmates who call in information, offering rewards of up to $5,000. Houston Chronicle story here: Jailhouse informers: Inmates can offer tips, get paid. County Sheriff Adrian Garcia explains the idea:
"When people are coming into the jail environment, we recognize they're vulnerable," Garcia said. "They're caught and being processed. We wanted to take advantage of that psychology. If they are the only one caught and they've been involved in a crime someone else planned, it may be a good idea for them to speak up."
While the idea of extending Crime Stoppers to criminals might seem logical, Grits for Breakfast points out some challenges:
One critical difference between jailhouse snitches and others who call Crime Stoppers, though: While an arrest may be made or criminal charges filed based on testimony from a jailhouse informant, in 2009 the Texas Legislature, in a bill authored by state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, required corroboration for jailhouse snitches' testimony in order to secure a conviction. Another difference: Jail calls are never anonymous.
The oddest aspect of the new program is that it completely ignores the well-documented tendency of jailhouse snitches to lie in exchange for benefits. From the Los Angeles Grand Jury investigation to the Canadian Kaufman inquiry, the Illinois Commission on the death penalty, and the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice report, numerous official studies have documented the pervasive use of snitches in U.S. jails and the potent dangers of wrongful conviction that flow from doing so. See for example, The Snitch System Report by Northwestern University Law School, concluding that criminal snitches constitute the "leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases." It is thus hard to see how Crime Stoppers' executive director Katherine Cabannis can say that "she believes the program will be successful because it solicits crime information from an untapped population" or how it can be that District Attorney Pat Lykos "sees no potential downsides." Indeed, jailhouse snitch testimony is so infamously unreliable that it compelled Texas to enact its corroboration requirement, which I applauded here: Texas requires corroboration for jailhouse snitches. While the corroboration requirement should mitigate some of the dangers of Harris County's new reward program, in this day and age government officials should think long and hard before creating new incentives for jailhouse informants.