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Cops Are Recruiting Young Informants in the Drug War -- and Risking Their Lives

When low-level drug offenders become informants in exchange for leniency, lack of protections can make for fatal results.

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Sarah Stillman, how different is Rachel Hoffman from the typical confidential informant whom you profile in your  New Yorker piece?

SARAH STILLMAN: You know, I think, demographically, she may not be the most representative insofar as, you know, many of the people who are—who find themselves in these very vulnerable situations do not necessarily kind of have a college education, do not necessarily have parents who are looking out for them, who also, you know, afterwards really stand up and speak out, as Margie and Irv Hoffman have done, really getting out there to really fight for reforms, to say, you know, "We’ve heard so many stories from people around the country who have faced really similar things without protection," young people, sometimes teenagers, sometimes people as young as, you know, 15 years old, going out there into these very dangerous situations, and ultimately kind of—Rachel’s parents have really fought for legislation to try to change this in Florida and, you know, hopefully at some point, around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back to this conversation, and we’ll be joined by a professor who has written a book on this subject and staying with Sarah Stillman as we hear the story not only of Rachel Hoffman, but of other young people who become informants and what happens to them. Who is responsible for them? Who is responsible for their lives? This isDemocracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Sarah Stillman, staff writer for The New Yorkermagazine. It was just announced that she’s won a George Polk Award for this  piece that she wrote called "The Throwaways," an eight-month investigation into law enforcement’s unregulated use of young confidential informants in drug cases, that has led to calls for reform in four states. Sarah, how did you discover this story?

SARAH STILLMAN: I came upon this issue a number of years ago. I had been looking into a case of murder in Florida, and when I found this young woman’s family, who had been killed, she told me that—they told me that she had been working as an informant for the police, that she had been getting threats on her life, and that, ultimately, she wound up, you know, dead in a lake with no sort of accountability. And I began looking at this issue of, you know, what protections exist for informants, and I found out about Rachel’s case and Rachel’s Law. And as I began looking around the country, I started finding other cases in Kentucky and in Washington state and in Detroit with all kinds of people of varying levels of education and varying geographies who had had their lives put at risk in this way.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Alexandra Natapoff, who is a professor of law at Loyola Law School and author of the book Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, who runs a  snitching blog, as well. But before we go to her, Sarah, tell us about a few more of these cases that you profile in your piece, "The Throwaways."

SARAH STILLMAN: Well, at the beginning of the show, you mentioned Shelley Hilliard, who was a young woman in Detroit, a transgender teenager, who was found smoking a bit of pot on a motel balcony. She was basically told, you know, by the police that if she didn’t call her dealer immediately and have him come back to the scene and bring some more drugs, that she would be incarcerated, which, you know, was particularly troubling for her as a transgender person, obviously the implicit threats of sexual violence for someone such as her. You know, she agreed to do this, called the dealer back, and he came and was arrested. And ultimately, it’s alleged that the police revealed Shelley’s identity to the dealer, who was then let out, I believe the next day, and came back and smothered her to death with another man and dismembered and set her on fire. So it was a very brutal and traumatic death, really for this young woman to escape having been found with an ounce of pot. So, that was a very common theme I found, was sort of the risks involved in these cases were often very incommensurate with the charges these people were facing.

 
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