October 24, 2012

Restoration of Rights Project

Every once in a while, I post something of general interest that is not informant-related. The Restoration of Rights Project is an important new resource from the NACDL (National Assoc. of Criminal Defense Lawyers) that everyone with a criminal record should know about. It provides detailed information about every state: what rights are lost upon conviction, and how to get them back. Here's the description:

NACDL is pleased to offer, as a resource for its members and as a service to the public, a collection of individual downloadable documents that profile the law and practice in each U.S. jurisdiction relating to relief from the collateral consequences of conviction. The 54 jurisdictional profiles include provisions on loss and restoration of civil rights and firearms privileges, legal mechanisms for overcoming or mitigating collateral consequences, and provisions addressing non-discrimination in employment and licensing. In addition to the full profiles, there is a set of charts covering all 50 states (plus territories and the federal system) that provide a side-by-side comparison and make it possible to see national patterns in restoration laws and policies. The information covered by the charts is summarized on the page for each jurisdiction. These materials will be an enormous aid to lawyers in minimizing the collateral consequences suffered by clients and in restoring their rights and status.

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June 15, 2011

Reason Magazine special issue on the criminal system

Reason Magazine's July special issue is entitled "Criminal Injustice: Inside America's national disgrace." There is an article on the social costs of incarceration by Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, one on snitching entitled The Guilt Market by me, one on wrongful conviction by Radley Balko, and many others.

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March 20, 2010

Prison rape

I'm blogging over at Prawfsblawg this month, and just posted the following about the New York Review of Books' excellent essay on prison rape. Link here. The essay describes the data and recommendations that have come out of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), as well as the politics of current reform efforts. For more general information on prison conditions and legal developments, check out Prison Law Blog.

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November 03, 2009

American Law Institute withdraws code section on death penalty

Once in a while I share information about important non-snitch-related developments in the criminal system. The American Law Institute is an influential voice in the development of U.S. criminal law. It is made up of prominent judges, practitioners, and academics, and issues Restatements of Law and other scholarly resources that are widely relied on. One such resource is the Model Penal Code, a comprehensive criminal code worked out by criminal justice experts, on which many states have based their own criminal laws. The ALI has announced that it is withdrawing Section 210.6 of the Model Penal Code, which prescribes the procedures to be used when a court is considering imposing the death penalty. Here is the statement from ALI Director Lance Liebman:

For reasons stated in Part V of the Council's report to the membership, the Institute withdraws Section 210.6 of the Model Penal Code in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.

Here's a link to the report on which the decision was based: Report of the Council to the Membership of the ALI on the Matter of the Death Penalty. The Model Penal Code now has no provision for administering the death penalty, although the ALI describes itself as taking no position on the propriety of the death penalty itself. For a survey and discussion of recent death-penalty-related developments, see this post on Sentencing Law and Policy blog.

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October 20, 2009

Big Picture: adjusting the war on drugs?

While this blog is primarily devoted to the policy of using criminal informants, the significance of snitching is deeply connected to drug enforcement. It is largely because drug offenses constitute so much of our criminal system--around 30 percent of state felony convictions among other things--that snitching is such a pervasive phenomenon. Accordingly, big shifts in drug enforcement are big snitching news. The U.S. Department of Justice announced yesterday that it will no longer prosecute medical marijuana users and distributors in the 14 states that have legalized medical marijuana, as long as those users/producers obey state law. New York Times story here. This step represents an important repudiation of the punitive, enforcement-by-any-means-and-at-all costs rhetoric of the past twenty years of federal drug enforcement. Over the summer, writer/journalist Sasha Abramsky predicted in an article in the Nation that "the nation may soon see a gradual backpedaling from the criminal justice policies that have led to wholesale incarceration in recent decades." Monday's announcement might be evidence of just such backpedaling.

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August 18, 2009

Troy Davis Gets a Hearing--Recantation Redux

I posted the other day about how hard it is for defendants to get new trials when the witnesses against them have recanted. Yesterday, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of granting death row inmate Troy Davis a new hearing. Of the nine witnesses who testified that Davis shot and killed Officer Mark MacPhail in 1989, seven have recanted. Of the remaining two witnesses, one--Red Coles--is suspected of being the actual shooter. Here's the NYT story .

While the Davis case is not ostensibly about snitching, it revolves around some classic dynamics associated with informant use and its unreliability. One recanting witness--Kevin McQueen--was in fact a jailhouse snitch who testified that Davis confessed to him. McQueen had worked several times before as a police informant and knew the value of providing information against other inmates. When Queen recanted, he explained that he had fabricated the confession based on jailhouse gossip and television reports. Here's the excerpt from the original appeals brief:

Ex-inmate Kevin McQueen testified at Davis' trial that Troy had confessed to him. McQueen had been a "snitch" in other prosecutions and his version of Troy's "confession" differed wildly from established facts (e.g. Troy was eating breakfast at the Burger King in the morning). McQueen subsequently admitted, "[t]he truth is that Troy never confessed to me or talked to me about the shooting of the police officer. I made up the confession from information I had heard on TV. and from other inmate's talk about the crimes. Troy did not tell me any of this."

This tactic of fabricating other inmates' confessions based on jailhouse talk and publicly available information was made famous by Leslie Vernon White, a Los Angeles jailhouse snitch. In 1989, White went on 60 Minutes and showed reporters how with a few phone calls from the jail he could get enough information to fabricate a confession that police and prosecutors would accept as true. The ensuing Los Angeles Grand Jury Investigation (link to the left) was a response to the White revelations.

Another important aspect of the Davis case that commonly occurs in informant cases is the "first-in-the-door" phenomenon, in which the first suspect to cooperate with police not only gets to direct attention away from himself but can fundamentally shape the official investigation. Red Coles is the man who several witnesses now identify as the real shooter. The day after the shooting, Coles and his attorney went to police and fingered Davis as the shooter--Coles became a witness against Davis at trial. As a result of Coles's cooperation, police resources were directed at Davis. This happens all the time with informants, especially in complex fraud or drug cases--the first suspects to cooperate shape the entire investigation and make it more difficult to discover the truth. Former prosecutor Steven Cohen describes what happens when the government believes a witness who cooperates early:

it is a certainty that the information obtained from the cooperator will become part of the base of information utilized to evaluate future would-be cooperators. Moreover, the information will affect future questioning of witnesses and defendants; it will alter how investigators view the significance of witnesses and particular pieces of evidence; and it may taint the way the case is perceived by the prosecutors and agents. In other words, false information skews the ongoing investigation. The false information may prove critical to issues that have far greater import than whether to accept as true the proffer of another would-be cooperator. Rather, it might impact decisions regarding charges to be filed against other defendants, it might affect decisions related to an appropriate plea for a given defendant, and it might even influence whether the government decides to seek the death penalty. (Steven M. Cohen, "What is True? Perspectives of a Former Prosecutor," 23 Cardozo L. Rev. 817, 825 (2002)).

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