The criminal justice system’s dependence on informants—supposed witnesses who work or testify for law enforcement or prosecutors in exchange for favors, such as reduced sentences in their own criminal cases—is a real problem with sometimes devastating effects. Certainly, informants have contributed to innocent people being wrongfully convicted. According to Innocence Project data, informants play a role in 15% of the 334 cases eventually overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence in the United States. In all of these cases, the informant system served only to compromise the integrity of the justice system and to ruin lives.
Sunday’s episode of
reported that the U.S. criminal justice system continues to enforce an informant-based system despite the widespread damage that it’s caused. According to the story, police departments and drug tasks forces are pressuring young people charged with minor drug infractions into either becoming confidential informants or otherwise be faced with crushing prison sentences. In many cases, the youth—desperate, vulnerable and unaware of their rights—often cave to the pressure.
Critics say that the youth targeted for recruitment are being dissuaded from seeking legal representation and from informing their parents that they’re serving as informants, reports
. In some instances, youth, who otherwise would have been advised by their parents to not accept the deals offered by the police—have died as a result of their confidential involvement in criminal cases.
The report underscores the key reason why legal experts are critical using criminal informants to inform investigations and trial: for informants the stakes are high, and the temptation to acquiesce to pressure by law enforcement is difficult to resist when their own freedom is at risk. Without reform, lives and justice will surely continue to be jeopardized.
Watch the 60 Minutes segment here:
Learn more about informants in wrongful conviction cases here: