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December 12, 2012

Posted by Alexandra Natapoff at 12:49 PM

Federal judge questions fairness of "substantial assistance" rules

The New York Times ran this story about the infamous case of Stephanie George: For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars. Ms. George became a poster child in 1997 for the unfairness of federal mandatory minimum sentencing when she received a lifetime sentence for a half kilo of cocaine that her former boyfriend had hidden in her attic.

Ms. George also became a prime example of how informing, or in federal parlance, providing "substantial assistance" to the government, can turn the justice system upside down. Ms. George's boyfriend--a cocaine dealer and ringleader--and other members of the drug ring received lower sentences than she did because they became informants. Because Ms. George had no information, she couldn't snitch and therefore U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson had no discretion to lower her sentence, a sentence that the judge himself considered draconian and unfair. From the story:

"[Stephanie George] was not a major participant by any means, but the problem in these cases is that the people who can offer the most help to the government are the most culpable," Judge Vinson said recently. "So they get reduced sentences while the small fry, the little workers who don't have that information, get the mandatory sentences."

Judge Vinson's comment reflects an intentional design feature of federal drug law. Because becoming an informant is the only way a defendant can avoid harsh mandatory minimums, snitching has become pervasive in the federal criminal system.

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