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Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice

8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0814758502
ISBN-10: 0814758509
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Editorial Reviews


“It’s truly an eye-opening book and a fascinating look at how much police work depends on a system no one wants to talk about, as ironic as that may be. I can’t imagine anyone devoted to police procedurals wouldn’t find it engrossing.”
-Barnes and Noble

“If there is one form of communication that criminals universally condemn, it is snitching. Yet the use of criminal informants is everywhere in the American legal system, says Alexandra Natapoff.”
-The Chronicle Review

“As [Natapoff] reveals in this scrupulously researched and forcefully argued new book, our system of rewarding criminal snitches for information is a ‘game without rules,’ played almost entirely in the shadows and off the books. . . . Snitching is a highly readable, provocative argument for reforming a system that allows our machines of criminal prosecution to commit near-criminal acts of compromise.”

-Dahlia Lithwick,senior editor, Slate

“Natapoff does a good job of explaining the law that governs the use of informants, and of describing how the all-too-rare regulatory schemes, such as FBI guidelines, work. One would expect this much from any law professor; Natapoff, however, goes much further. One of the truly impressive contributions of the book comes in her explanation of the effects of widespread use of informants for the criminal justice system, our social structures, and our democracy... If it simply described [the] dramatic downsides in order to properly tally both benefits and risks of informant use, Snitching would be a very successful book. But to her credit, Natapoff does more than just catalogue these problems. She gives us a comprehensive picture of what we must do to make the use of informants acceptable within our criminal justice system... Alexandra Natapoff had produced a useful, timely, and important book. Snitching should find a place in every law school course looking at legal issues in the criminal justice arena, and on the syllabi of every university course in criminal justice that aims to give students a realistic and nuanced view of how the system really works. Natapoff’s observations, as fair as they are, may not sit well with those committed to getting the bad guys at any cost. But that is the book’s real gift: showing us what that cost is, and suggesting ways of constructing a system of criminal justice that accurately mirrors the values to which we aspire.”-Criminal Justice

“Alexandra Natapoff has written analytically and creatively about informants and their handlers.”
-California Lawyer

“Natapoff has written a compelling and searing book about snitching. It not only comprehensively describes the problem, but offers sharp, clear, and unambiguous solutions. If we really want to address the legal and moral implications of snitching, every judge, defense lawyer, prosecutor, and police officer should read this book.”
-Charles J. Ogletree, Jr.,Jesse Climenko Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice

“Superb. . . . A searing indictment of how the secretive dynamics of informing have helped corrupt inner city life in America, and a deep scholarly analysis of how our legal rules contribute to this problem and can be reformed to mitigate it. This brilliantly original book is . . . wise and ruthlessly honest in its understanding of the street level practices of informant-reliance.”
-Robert Weisberg,Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law, Stanford Law School, founder and director of the Stanford Center for Criminal Justice

"The book...provides a sweeping look at law-enforcement use of confidential informants."
-Los Angeles Daily Journal

“[T]hought-provoking. Natapoff…offers the most up-to-date and trenchant analysis of ‘snitching’ in the criminal justice system [and]…insightful proposals for reform…. Th[is] impressive text make[s] important substantive and theoretical contributions to the scholarship on race, class, crime, and the legal system.”-Du Bois Review

“This is a useful book that can be read with profit by practitioners, scholars, and the general public.”-Choice

“Vital for understanding the legal process and the moral standard of law enforcement. An excellent read and a harsh glimpse at what the future might hold for the fabric of our justice system. A must have for the urban reader.”
-Immortal Technique,hip hop artist and President of Viper Records

About the Author


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 276 pages
  • Publisher: NYU Press (November 16, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0814758509
  • ISBN-13: 978-0814758502
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,173,661 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Although the criminal system is an enormous part of American society, its workings are often invisible. I write about the social and legal dynamics of criminal justice in an effort to understand the system as a whole--from lofty constitutional ideals all the way down to the experiences of the person sitting in jail. I am Professor of Law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, and a member of the American Law Institute. I have also been a federal public defender, a community organizer, and the recipient of an Open Society Institute Community Fellowship.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Laird M. Wilcox on March 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I can't tell you how happy I am to see this book published. I don't think Americans have even a vague idea of how much trouble an innocent person can be in once they come under serious scrutiny by the criminal justice system. Arrest warrants can be based on flimsy evidence and insubstantial claims that do not have to be accounted for. Often, innocent defendants are in the position of having to prove they are NOT guilty, and unscrupulous use of plea bargaining can make a false guilty plea seem like a much better deal than the crapshoot of a jury trial. The cost of a serious criminal defense can bankrupt most families and public defenders are worthless plea bargain machines. It can be a true nightmare scenario.

What needs to be better understood is that there is vast difference between someone actually being unequivocally guilty of a crime, and there being enough "evidence" - often in the form of testimony and circumstantial evidence - to convict them. During the 1960's and 1970's I was a Special Deputy under four Sheriffs, and have published a number of investigative books. The cases I ran into where I felt that injustice had been done were depressingly common. The cases passed legal muster in the courts, but the outcomes were tragically wrong.

Police informants, often criminals themselves or defendants trying to bargain their way out of a very bad situation, account for a fantastic number of criminal cases leading to conviction - in some jurisdictions nearly 50%, especially where narcotics are involved. Law enforcement justifies this situation by claiming that they don't have the resources to actually develop good physical evidence or reliable surveillance, and without dubious informants many guilty defendants would go free.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Ernesto Aguilar on November 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Incidents such as that of activist Brandon Darby informing on fellow activists, and the Tulia, Texas drug arrests scandal are but two examples of a trend that law enforcement has increasingly relied on as a method for policing, but which is increasingly returning disastrous results. The use of individuals to provide information leading to arrests, in exchange for lesser charges, but whose offered details are often fraught with inconsistencies, is the subject of Alexandra Natapoff's searing read Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

Use of snitches has been going on far longer than the Darby affair. African-American communities have seen law enforcement use informants to combat drugs and urban blight at the cost of community cohesion. In these neighborhoods, Natapoff says, police methods are more intrusive and the penal process treats young Black men harshly. Such tragedies make informants plentiful. The result of snitch culture in the Black community is essentially that police permit informants to engage in criminal activity, foment distrust in neighborhoods and encourage retaliation. In the end, informants do little more than destabilize Black communities and undercut police legitimacy as well as individuals' belief in fairness.

However, it is the stories of desperation that dot Natapoff's writing which are incredibly striking. Fundamentally, the author reminds us, informants are people trying to escape long jail sentences by providing assistance to police. Such a relationship lends itself to producing information as a matter of self-preservation, and that their continued performance will keep them out of jail and presumably able to break the law so long as they are of use to law enforcement.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By John G. Chase on June 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ms. Natapoff's book combines the best of scholarly research and social activism. (There are almost 50 pages of footnotes.) She documents the the abuses being done by the criminal justice system. She comes down hard on how the system destabilizes neighborhoods by creating crime to stop crime. Some courts have accepted an entrapment defense in certain cases. Confidential informants, she writes, are needed and can be useful IF they are used responsibly. It's a big IF because rewarded testimony is inherently unreliable unless corroborated.

The problem, IMO, is that most Americans have been so conditioned to fear "drugs" and "the other" that they have entrusted their safety to the criminal justice system. This has allowed police and prosecutors to target people they think most Americans want them to target. It has been the rule of men rather than the rule of law, not something Americans should be proud of.

In her "Conclusion" She summarizes the problem and proposes reasonable -- and politically practical -- steps to fix it. It is a book that can serve as a reference point for legislators.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Torrie on March 15, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The book provides excellent case references to illustrate the damaging effect of snitching as a means to get convictions. The high risk that the wrong person is sentenced and the equal risk the actual perpetrator remains free (to offend again), is not only destructive at a personal level, but all of society should be concerned at the repercussions. I highly reccomend this as educational & a reference book. Law professor Natapoff covers all levels of offenses; from burglary,drugs, gangs, all the way up to Capital Punishment cases.
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