The Konformist

April 2001

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by Jim Redden, author, SNITCH CULTURE (Feral House, 2000)

More Americans went to prison or jail under President Bill Clinton that any previous administration - proving the insidious growth of the Snitch Culture.

Informants helped convict many if not most of the 673,000 people who were sent to state and federal prisons and jails during Clinton1s eight years in office, compared with 343,000 during President Bush's single term and 448,000 in President Reagan's two terms.

According to a study by the Justice Policy Institute, the incarceration rate at the end of the Clinton administration was 476 per 100,000 citizens, versus 332 per 100,000 at the end of Bush's term and 247 per 100,000 at the end of Reagan's administration.

African-Americans were especially hard hit under Clinton. The incarceration rates for blacks increased from around 3,000 per 100,000 to 3,620 per 100,000 people during the pasat eight years.

Much of this increase is a direct result of the War on Drugs, a domestic law enforcement initiative driven by thousands of informants and other government undercover operatives. As sociologist Malin Akerstrom put it, "[T]he police have a greater incentive to use informants in drug cases than in many others because they are victimless crimes. Therefore it can be assumed that the police try harder to produce more informants in a case in which drugs are involved - particularly as it currently is prestigious to solve these cases."

This has always been true, whether the illegal drug is moonshine, marijuana or heroin. But the federal government specifically targeted crack cocaine for special attention after it made inroads into the black community. Congress used the cocaine-related death of a college basketball player named Len Bias as an excuse for this decision. He had been drafted by the Boston Celtics, the professional team in the home district of House Speaker Tip O'Neill. A few weeks after Bias died, Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1986, dramatically increasing the penalties for crack. Under the guidelines established by the law, the minimum sentence for someone convicted of selling 5 grams of crack is the same as that for a person found guilty of trying to sell 500 grams of powdered cocaine - a 100 to 1 ratio. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, by the end of the 20th Century, the average crack cocaine sentence was 122 months, compared to 79 months for powdered cocaine. Suddenly, minor drug users were facing the kind of penalties traditionally reserved for murderers and criminal kingpins, dramatically increasing their willingness to snitch.

There was only way to avoid serving the new mandatory minimum sentences - provide the government with what prosecutors consider "substantial assistance" in arresting and convicting other drug dealers and users. In other words, become a snitch. According to a 1995 study by the National Law Journal, "Between 1980 and 1993, the number of federal search warrants relying exclusively on an unidentified snitch nearly tripled, from 24 percent to 71 percent."

Within a few years, inner city black communities were swarming with informants desperate to rat out their friends, associates, even their family members. A good example is Scott Tredwell, an African-American cocaine dealer who worked as an informant in Minnesota, Washington and Oregon. The deal Tredwell cut with the government is typical of professional informants. He was not only paid a regular salary, but received bonuses for every bust he helped set up. In addition, as long as he was informing, the government allowed Tredwell to continue dealing drugs, and to break a number of other state and federal laws, too.

According to federal court documents, Tredwell first began dealing drugs in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area in Minnesota in the late 1980s. He was selling kilograms of powder cocaine, and began doing business with a high-level drug dealing family. Tredwell made thousands of dollars every week dealing cocaine, eventually "fronting" cocaine to distributors who sold the drugs for him.

In 1987, Tredwell stole $20,000 from a member of the drug family and flew to Los Angeles, intending to buy cocaine and bring it back to Minnesota to sell. Unfortunately for him, the police arrested him at the airport with $11,000 in cash. Tredwell originally gave a false name and lied to the police, but he quickly struck a deal and agreed to work as an informant. The police bailed him out, returned his $11,000, and paid to fly him back to Minneapolis.

After he returned home, Tredwell testified before a grand jury as a "cooperating witness." He continued to sell drugs, but soon got scared and fled the area because the word was out that he was a snitch. Tredwell eventually called the police for help and they agreed to continue working with him, even giving him $4,000 to pay off his most recent "dope debt."

Tredwell's next stop on the informant superhighway was Seattle, Washington, where the police gave him a nice apartment, a Cadillac, and a bounty. Tredwell was paid per buy, and his compensation - including car and expenses - totalled over $30,000 within just a few months. During this time, Tredwell filed a tax return that failed to report any of the money the government paid him.

After Seattle, Tredwell moved to Portland, Oregon for more of the same. He signed on with the Oregon State Youth Gang Strike Force, which included sworn officers and support personnel from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Oregon National Guard, the Oregon State Police and the Portland Police Bureau. By 1991, Tredwell had participated in nearly 50 buys, driving his total earnings to over $70,000. The DEA paid Tredwell an additional $21,000 for his Strike Force work.

Tredwell continued breaking the law while living in Portland. According to court documents, he sold cocaine and marijuana, assaulted his girlfriend, and smashed up the car which had been provided for him. Although he was arrested a few times, the charges were always dropped because of his status as an undercover informant. After Tredwell finished testifying in the Oregon trials that grew out of his undercover work, he moved to another state and started informing again.

The result of such operations has been a dramatic increase in the nation1s prison population. The number of people locked up in federal, state and local jails has quadrupled since 1980, nearly doubling during the 1990s, largely because of drug busts. "In the Federal system, nearly 60 percent of all people behind bars are doing time for drug violations; in state prisons and local jails, the figure is 22 percent. These numbers are triple the rate of 15 years ago," the New York Times reported on March 7, 1999.

The vast majority of people arrested for drug violations are charged with simple possession, not manufacturing or dealing. According to the 1998 FBI Uniform Crime Report, 78.8 percent of all drug arrests are for possession. Only 21.2 percent of the arrests are for manufacturing or dealing.

These trends were confirmed in early 1999 by the non-profit Justice Policy Institute. According to a JPI, over one million non-violent offenders were incarcerated in America in 1998. Over the past 20 years, the non-violent prisoner population has increased at a rate much faster than the number of violent prisoners. Since 1978, the number of persons imprisoned for drug offenses increased eight-fold. By 1998, 77 percent of the people entering prisons and jails were sentenced for non-violent offenses.

This is especially true in California, the nation1s most populous state. According to the California Department of Corrections, as of June 1999, drug offenders represented 28 percent of the prison population. At the same time, a record 12 percent of prisoners were being held for simple possession.

Worse, according to criminal justice experts, many of the people who have been convicted on drug charges are innocent. The pressure to snitch is so great that a large number of informants simply make up accusations against friends, associates - even family members - to escape the long mandatory minimum sentences. "Our rights as citizens [and] the United States Constitution [are] now in the hands of a group of about 15,000 wild, out-of-control informants," Michael Levine, a retired DEA and Customs agent, told the National Law Journal for its 1995 article.

The results are now clear for everyone to see.


The previous article was adopted from SNITCH CULTURE: HOW CITIZENS ARE TURNED INTO THE EYES AND EARS OF THE STATE (ISBN: 0-922915-63-6) by Jim Redden, a Senior Staff Writer for the Portland Tribune. SNITCH CULTURE is now available at local bookstores, from, and from its publisher, Feral House, 2554 Lincoln Blvd., Suite 739, Venice CALIF 90291. It retails for $14.95.

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