In recent weeks, there’s been a great deal of media attention around a scandal in Orange County, California, that shone a spotlight on the problems associated with the use of jailhouse informants—incarcerated people who provide information or testimony in exchange for offers of money, leniency or other special privileges. The Orange County prosecutor and sheriff’s offices have been accused of running a secret jailhouse informant program, failing to disclose key information to defense attorneys and lying about it in court. Some informants were allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to elicit confessions from inmates.
Jailhouse informant testimony is a leading cause of wrongful convictions nationally. The promise of benefits creates a strong incentive to lie, and the secretive nature of the jailhouse informant system makes cross-examination and other legal safeguards against unreliable testimony ineffective. In many wrongful convictions defendants were not given key information related to the credibility of jailhouse informants who testified against them including the benefits they received, previous cases in which they acted as jailhouse informants, and their criminal history.
Several states are taking steps to improve transparency and safeguards related to jailhouse informant testimony. A recent NPR article discussed legislation introduced by California Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer to address problems highlighted by the Orange County scandal and wrongful conviction cases. Just Monday, the Texas governor signed the nation’s most comprehensive jailhouse informant law that will require prosecutors to track and disclose key information, and in Illinois a bill requiring pretrial reliability hearings for jailhouse informant testimony is moving in the legislature.
Hopefully other states will adopt similar measures to prevent wrongful convictions and improve confidence in the criminal justice system.