snitch
Discussion
man behind barsWhat are your views on the government's use of informants in prosecuting drug crimes?


Dear FRONTLINE,

Due to the severity of mandatory minimums and the impact it has had on this country's prison population, it is my opinion that the use of informants by the government is a shameful disgrace!

When you are dealing with a person's life, and the fact that a drug conviction, or any conviction with such severe punishment, can mean the end of that life on the outside every effort should be made by the government to see to it that the evidence used to gain a conviction is solid physical evidence gathered through just unmistakable means.

Most Americans trust the government, thus government witnesses, more times than not, would be considered trustworthy as well. The reality is that most informants are not trustworty, a fact that most juriors don't know. And even if they did feel that an informant is lying, it is the trust of the government [thus its informants] which, more times than not, lead to the decisions to convict.

Using informants, most of whom would do or say whatever they are told for self serving means, is surely justice denied. It is also a violation and misuse of the trust Americans put in the government.

Moreover, where is the power of this country's government anyway! Look, before cocaine reaches America it must be growned, harvested, procesed, packaged then shipped into this country, via air, land, or sea. Who but the government has control over every entry point into this country? It seems to me if drugs are a problem the issue for the government to solve is to stop it before it reaches our communities.

It should be clear to all Americans by now that the current drug policies are not working.

Does America have the funds to house these prisoners, many for the rest of their natural lives! What happens when they get old and are in need of expensive medical care?

Statistics shows that there are currently 117 convicitions daily. The prison population is almost over 2 million. Thus, the current policies have not deterred drug activities in our communities.

stone mountain, ga


Dear FRONTLINE,

As an agent with the FBI for 20+ years, I have never...repeat...never seen a defendant go to prison based solely on the word of an informant.

At least in the the 9th Circuit the juries require corroborating evidence before believing the naked word of an informant. Your report would have been far stronger had it included a more balanced presentation. Was your producer afraid of talking to the cops and prosecutors? Or did the producer simply want SHOW BIZ instead of a balanced presentation?

Timothy McKinley
san francisco, california


Dear FRONTLINE,

...t is time to admit that this law is wrong. it is a law for the wealthy. The drug kingpins at the top. It is not to protect the poor, the weak or the young. When a judge in his own courtroom is not allowed to take into account any special circumstances, if there be any to do right by the person in their court as well as the victims.

So if a young person makes a mistake, his life is over? Someone please explain to me how this helps to bring down the drug kingpins? I thought this was a land of justice not revenge. Absolute power corrupts absolutely!

lancaster, ca


Dear FRONTLINE,

It's ironic to me that the "get tough on crime" politicians who so often decry the absence of common sense in today's judiciary miss the mark on this issue. If you dangle freedom in front of a career criminal, he'll rat out colleagues and customers 9 times out of 10.

I'm disgusted as well that the execution of the "snitch" laws enable the big-time drug dealers to gain lenience in exchange for a list of names. Wouldn't it be more effective to crack down harshly on large scale distributors and offer no leniency? Wouldn't it raise the risk of doing business appropriately - and soon prohibitively? If we squeeze distributors rather street-dealers it will be more difficult for growers and importers to sell their narcotics. Imagine the resources available with such an effort!

I for one can't abide a geometric expansion in penitentiary costs. Republicans, where's your common sense?!? Present a change in laws not as "soft on crime" but as a sensible reaction to the elastic and self-serving response of drug criminals.

This Frontline was perhaps the best television I've watched in the past year. Thank you for an excellent report.

Frank McNichols
berwyn, il


Dear FRONTLINE,

I have been visiting a lady in federal prison for over a year through the Prison Ministry of Match-2. On our first visit the first thing she told me was, "I didn't do anything". I thought this was strange. How did she get in jail if she didn't do anything wrong? Maybe all prisoners say they're innocent. But every month she would tell me about how it happened.

She was married to a man for only a few months and had no idea he was dealing drugs. He had a job and there didn't seem to be excess money or evidence he was using the drugs. She had a good job as a nurse in a hospital.

When federal agents came to her house to arrest her she could not believe it and she got the same sentence as the husband, 11 years. It was her word against the others involved . The only proof she had that she was not involved would be if they said she was not. But of course for money and reduced sentences they named her.

Could this really happen in America? A productive member of society locked away on the word of a snitch? She had never had any kind of trouble before and no one in her family had either.

Then I saw this program and wow! she really was telling the truth.

What can we do to change such inappropriate and senseless laws? This "war on drugs" is killing the good guys and letting the bad ones out to do more harm.

wanda finn
livermore, ca


Dear FRONTLINE,

.something is seriously wrong with this system where state laws on violent crimes are lenient and federal laws on drug related crime violent or not are so calling for life sentences right out of the gate. Some of our legislators need to wake up.

cindy eley-ommen
hermosa beach, ca


Dear FRONTLINE,

In response to Ofra Bikel's Snitch -I reached two conclusions (1) everyone in prison is not innocent and (2) the featured individuals were not political prisoners, they were exceptions- being used to express political views.

In spite of Bikels assertions to the contrary, not all prosecutors and police will go to the totalitarian lengths described in Snitch to abrogate our civil rights. Yet the story seems to blur the obvious difference between enforcement and legislation into one massive stick figure guaranteed to appeal to your deepest paranoia and scare just about everyone.

The cut and paste journalistic freedom used by Bikel to recreate facts in this story violated many aspects of truth and journalistic ethics. I think we would all agree that interviews that take innocent statements out of context to slant the truth may be entertaining but hardly qualify as journalism. I take particular issue with story lines that advance an inherent racism or other wedge issues that increase our paranoia and distract us from properly assessing a story based on its merits.

One would also expect Bikel/Frontline to verify the hard facts -who, what, where and when- before presenting a story of this gravity, whose thesis statement is so much about racial inequality. Minor omissions and misstatements are inevitable, but major time line gaffs such as failing to observe that most of the Alabama arrests took place during the tenure of Mr. Sessions, seem almost deliberate. To add salt to this wound, the presentation then wisely ignores the inherited responsibly of US Attorney Foster, preferring to vilify him as central to Ms. Bikels implied scenario of organized oppression.

For Bikel to allude that testimony for immunity was the only evidence necessary to convict the featured criminals is simplistic at best. These individuals were most often the subject of long standing investigations whose circumstantial evidence was corroborated by informants. Ignoring this information is not a journalistic option for Frontline or Bikel.

While there is certainly a case to change the laws, the function of enforcement is not to interpret but to implement. Bikel/Frontline would be better served to ask the right questions of legislators responsible for such dramatic expressions of the peoples will.

David Wilder
iowa city, iowa


Dear FRONTLINE,

Joey Settembrino has been a very good friend of mine since we were freshmen in high school. We spent a lot of time together in the classroom, on the football field, as well as socially. I never knew Joey to participate in drug use, much less be involved in selling them. I feel very confident in saying that he is the furthest thing from a drug dealer there is. To think that an impressionable 18-year-old kid, who was trying to do this so-called friend a favor, could receive a 10 year mandatory sentence is apalling to say the least. Yes he did make a bad decision, but haven't we all made a bad decision here and there, especially when we were at that age? I would completely agree with Joey's punishment if he were a habitual dealer, someone who was given his last chance and made aware of the consequences of further offenses, but for his first one (especially one that was staged by the government with the full intention of setting up Joey, no matter who he was or if he meant one iota to cutting down on the drug problem)? How many people even knew you could be punished in such a way for your first offense? I'm willing to guess not very many, I know I didn't know. I would like someone to try to convince me that a 10 year minimum mandatory sentence is the right punishment for a bright young person with his whole life ahead of him. Furthermore, convince me why rape and other directly hurtful and violent crimes are perceived by the law as less important, as far as punishment is concerned? Have we as a country really put our blinders when it comes to the War on Drugs so much as to say "you sell $1,000 worth of acid, you go to jail for 10 years, no questions asked, but if you beat someone senseless, rape them, and cause permanent life-altering damage to them, physically and emotionally...well 10 years may be too much, we'll give them another chance. Well why wasn't Joey given another chance? Try explaining that one with a clear conscience.

Drew Kemp
nashville, tn


Dear FRONTLINE,

I'm not an expert on law, but it seems to me that we are witnessing a very unjust and unconstitutional way of sentencing here. The late Archbishop Romero of El Salvador said "the law is a rabid dog that only bites the poor". This extreme snitching is very much like MaCartheisms at its worst.

Victor Olano
stockton, california


Dear FRONTLINE,

My boyfriend and I were very tired late last night and we turned on the TV to see what was on. We did not turn it off until your programs was over and we did not speak a word while it was on. Today, your show is still with me, angering me, depressing the hell out of me, making me wonder what the next step should be. I'm 27 and this was the first thing I have seen in my lifetime that made me question America so deeply - and I question America a lot. I knew there was racism and prosecutorial excess in our legal system (among so much else), but I had no idea it was being used as a systematic, manifestly unjust battering ram to beat down and intimidate (by and large) African Americans and the poor.

Who are these old white men defending these outrageous laws? I want protection from them, not drug dealers. Who wants to be part of a country they run? And that awful inhuman man who said of Clarence Aaron "if he had tried to help himself he would have spared himself the consequences." What passive pathetic phrasing - the words of someone who knows he's doing wrong, knows he must couch this process in euphemism, and acting as if "snitching" is helping anyone other than the government. I am enraged and humiliated. I am a very patriotic American in my own way, because in my heart I believe we keep moving closer towards the ideals we espoused hundreds of years ago but I had no idea something was going on in this country right now. We must eliminate these laws, We must rethink or disband this so-called "War on Drugs," we must eliminate these mandatory sentences and with them repeal the conspiracy clause that says the weakest link deserves the same punishment as the highest link.

Lastly can the House of Representatives/Congress be trusted with anything? Can they do anything right? Are they worth the trouble? Do they pass anything except unpopular unconstitutional impeachments, and cynical ill-considered cobbled together laws that do real damage to us, show scorn for the balance of powers in our system, all so they can get re-elected? Unfathomable.

David Zellnik
new york, ny


Dear FRONTLINE,

Your program only proves that there is no justice in America for the Black and the poor. This idea of mandatory minimums only proves that there is a conspiracy by the U.S. government, against Black people in particular. The only real solution that I see to your inherently racist criminal justice system is a complete and total separation of Black people from white America and the establishment of an independent Black state that is devoted to true freedom, justice and equality for its citizens. The government should ceede the monies that are allocated to the prison industrial complex toward the establishment of an independant Black nation based on the Israel model. For those Blacks that choose to separate from a system and government that will NEVER give them justice, history will prove that this was the most sensible and intelligent solution.

William Muhammad
el paso, tx


Dear FRONTLINE,

I am an aspiring lawyer and judge. It frightens me to think that as a judge, in these particular cases, that they really have no say in the judgement. To me that defeats the purpose of even having a judge. A judge is to hear the case and give a sentence based upon that. This mandatory minimum sentencing is, to me, taking away a lot of a judges power. We pick these judges because we think they are fair and trustworthy. What kind of message was congress trying to send out? It seems to me that they are saying that they do not have very much trust in the judges but rather in the prosecutors.

albuquerque, new mexico


Dear FRONTLINE,

I am a criminal defense attorney with the United States Army. As you may know, the Army justice system operates under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Although this code is mandated by the Federal Government, the military has not yet adopted the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In my practice, I have found that "snitching" has worked to the benefit of many of my clients. And thus, from my perspective does play a valuable part in the justice process. However, I was moved by the perspective put forth by your program. Still fired up the next morning, I struck up a conversation with a fellow attorney in our office. I raised the issue regarding the potential for abuse due to mandatory minimum sentencing, and how it takes the discretion out of the hands of our learned federal judges. He confidently responded that he had been a Congressional intern at the time the bill was drafted and proposed, and even had a part in the research and drafting of the crime bill. He has a strict "do the crime, pay with time" ideology, and assured me that the crime bill was born from the "voice of the people", and he trumpeted the legislative process as the cornerstone of democracy. In some respects I agree, but after your program I didn't feel like that law reflects the voices of many people I know in America. Thanks for consistently raising your voices about issues that matter.

Greg Greiner
el paso, tx


Dear FRONTLINE,

I have always thought that each branch of our government is suppose to do its constitutionally appointed job without encroaching on the duties of other constitutionally appointed branches. If this is so, then how can the legislature enact a law which disempowers judges of their right to oversee sentencing?

Eleanor Friedlander
weston, ma


Dear FRONTLINE,

Thank you for taking on the drug war. I too was like the last man on the film who was a juror. I was on a drug case, where we found the young man guilty, but we weren't allowed to know the sentence. We thought he would get 1-3 yrs. Because of Manditory minimums he got 10! He was a stupid kid who made a bad decision, and he shouln't be punnished that much. This was has too many casualties and it must stop. We need more rehab. and less punnishment.

Bob Herndon
decatur, ga


Dear FRONTLINE,

I feel that mandatory minimum sentences are a great way to open the eyes of the public to the utterly useless 'war on drugs'. Don't get me wrong, I feel that this is a horrendous injustice done to all Americans. However do you think this report would have even aired if it were not for stories of both the young white male and the rich white attorney? This is a problem that has been going on much longer than just 13 years. Now that the well off can be and are being targeted, this subject is getting the attention it truly deserves. This is mainly due to the fact that the people who are now affected have the financial resources to voice their opinions, in other words, these are the people the voting public truly care about. Luckily for those of us without financial resources we can now ride the coat tails to better legislation. We must not settle for the mere abolishment of manditory miniums, but for the over haul of the whole system As for Orin Hatch and all the US prosecutors mentioned in the story, instead of educating the young minds of those they are supposedly out to protect, they glorify drugs through making them such a taboo subject. Why not put the money wasted on 'the war on drugs' to educate and expose drugs for what they really are, a weak attempt to escape reality by weak people. Please write your congressperson. Thank You

Lucas Smith
carbondale, il

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