The Throwaways: Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants. But the work is high-risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal.
Note: this article was originally published in 2012
Informants are the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to 80% of all drug cases in America involve them, often in active roles. For police departments facing budget woes, untrained informants provide an inexpensive way to outsource the work of undercover officers. “The system makes it cheap and easy to use informants, as opposed to other, less risky but more cumbersome approaches,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants. “There are fewer procedures in place and fewer institutional checks on their use.” Often, deploying informants involves no paperwork and no institutional oversight, let alone lawyers, judges, or public scrutiny; their use is necessarily shrouded in secrecy.
Every day, offenders are sent out to perform high-risk police operations with few legal protections. Some are juveniles, occasionally as young as 14 or 15. Some operate through the haze of addiction; others are enrolled in state-mandated treatment programs that prohibit their association with illegal drugs of any kind. Many have been given false assurances by the police, used without regard for their safety, and treated as disposable pawns of the criminal-justice system.
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