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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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That was also the case of a young man in Washington state. His name was Jeremy McLean. He was found selling eight methadone pills, a controlled substance, to a friend, who it turned out was working as a confidential informant also. And, you know, he signed a contract, under pressure, to become an informant. And he agreed to do four stings, ultimately, to get him freed of the charges. And not only did he do those four stings, but he did another sting after that, and another and another and another after that. Ultimately, he did 14 stings, and he was still not let off. At one point, you know, he got a heroin trafficker behind bars. That guy got out, began threatening his life. Jeremy went to the police for protection and received none and ultimately was violently murdered, as well. So, there are just so many instances of people actually crying out for help and protection from police after doing this dangerous work and not receiving it, and then you see these tragic outcomes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to bring Alexandra Natapoff into the conversation. Alexandra, you’ve written extensively on this issue. Can you talk about the increasing use of young confidential informants in American law enforcement, especially when it comes to the war on drugs?

ALEXANDRA NATAPOFF: Well, it turns out that the use of criminal informants is a massive part of the way we run our criminal justice system, in ways that the public almost never gets to see. It’s one of the reasons that this New Yorkerarticle by Sarah Stillman is so important. It really draws back the curtain on a particularly shocking aspect of this larger phenomenon, which is that we permit vulnerable people, like young people, even children, people with substance abuse problems or mental health issues, people who don’t know their rights, to be pressured by police and prosecutors into becoming informants in ways that are terribly risky to their health and well-being. This is part of a larger phenomenon: We accord vast discretion to police and prosecutors to create, use, pressure, as well as reward, criminal informants in order to gather information and make cases in ways that are almost entirely unregulated, secretive and unaccountable.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Alexandra, can you talk about some of the states that have passed legislation to protect informants and what kind of legislation is set to be introduced this month in Washington state?

ALEXANDRA NATAPOFF: So there are a number of states that have looked at different aspects of informant regulation. The increased focus on the risks to young and juvenile informants, in particular, has sparked a great interest around the country. The legislation that is being introduced in Washington state at the moment would, among other things, prohibit the use of informants under the age of 16. At this time, only California has a law that prohibits the use of juveniles under the age of 14. In other states, we permit police and prosecutors to make the decision about whether children should be used as informants and whether they should be exposed to the kinds of risks that Sarah Stillman documents in her New Yorker article. States around the country have also considered other kinds of legislation, not only to protect informants, as does Rachel’s Law in Florida as a result of the efforts of Margie Weiss and her family, but also to improve the transparency and the accountability that attaches to police and prosecutorial use of informants. Right now, again, it’s a largely unregulated and secretive world in which these deals are made at great risk often to the informants themselves and great risk to other members of the community when these deals are made.

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