$100,000 To Snitch? Perks For Jailhouse Informants Come Under Scrutiny
Nobody likes a snitch. But if you're in jail, informing on fellow inmates can pay.
Legislators in at least four states are now trying to make sure that rewarding jailhouse informants — with cash, perks or deals for freedom — isn't leading to wrongful convictions.
Bruce Lisker knows how convictions can go wrong. He was only 17 when he discovered his mother murdered in her suburban Los Angeles home.
"I lost my mom and nothing would ever be the same. And I had no idea how not the same it would ever be," Lisker says.
It took investigators less than an hour to zero in on him as a suspect. It took 26 years for a court to determine that they were mistaken.
A key piece of evidence used to convict Lisker was testimony from a savvy jailhouse informant, whom he met after being moved out of juvenile detention.
"Somebody put it in for me to be transferred to LA County Jail and suddenly I was," Lisker says. "Under 18, I was placed in what later came to be known as the snitch tank."
A grand jury investigation found that the so-called "snitch tank" of 1980s LA was designed to give seasoned informants access to naive inmates.
Lisker says there were holes in his cell's walls. The man in the next cell over suggested that they pray together. He said he could help with Lisker's case and asked for a copy of the police report.
"I rolled it up and shoved it through that little hole in the wall and let him look at it over dinner," Lisker says. "And then we're going to talk later and he's going to tell me what he thinks, how to help me ... How to help himself."
The man, it turns out, was working for law enforcement. For a reduction in his sentence, he said Lisker had confessed to him and his story matched the case file.
"He had taken notes of all the stuff that was in there," Lisker says.
Today, inmates still trade information for rewards -– sometimes big ones. Two Southern California tipsters pulled in more than $300,000 between 2011 and 2015 informing on fellow inmates.
California Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer has written a state bill to limit these kickbacks. He thinks they can distort the truth.
"I'm concerned about the veracity of the information. I might incriminate you at $100,000 dollars a year. That could be a sideline business in prison," Jones Sawyer says.
The bill, AB 359, requires better tracking and pre-trial disclosure of who says what in jail. And Jones-Sawyer is proposing a maximum of a $100 in cash or perks paid per case.
"It's the taxpayers' money. And that's where I'm really concerned that we set an equitable number and that we don't exceed it," Jones-Sawyer says.
But Cory Salzillo of the California State Sheriffs' Association, a group opposing the bill, says it's impossible to tally the costs of certain perks informants receive.
"Some of these things are not necessarily quantifiable – a better cell assignment, or some other type of benefit that is not a tangible good with an inherent value," Salzillo says.
Sheriffs and district attorneys have other concerns about the bill as well. They say that tracking informants over time will be tough and that revealing too much about them will jeopardize other investigations they're helping with. When it comes to judging their credibility, Salzillo thinks the system works.
"I'm not sure you can say just because a person receives something in exchange that they are inherently unreliable. But, the defendant will raise the question, certainly. Ultimately, that has to be adjudicated by the court," Salzillo says.
But criminal informants are "inherently unreliable by definition," according to Loyola Law School Professor Alexandra Natapoff.
"They're giving the government information in exchange for a benefit," she says.
Natapoff is the author of Snitching, about how criminal informants erode justice.
"As one court has said, it's hard to imagine a greater inducement to fabricate than the promise of one's own liberty," she says.
Still, Natapoff agrees, transparency helps. California prosecutors already have to disclose leniency deals. AB 359 adds to that requirement an informant's criminal record and history of substance abuse, mental illness and informing in other cases. Texas, Washington and Illinois are all considering similar bills.
"States seem to be coming to a consensus that more information is better. It leads to fewer wrongful convictions and it's just a fairer and better way to run the adversarial system," Natapoff says.
Back in 1983, when he was returned to juvenile detention, Bruce Lisker was still sure he could prove his innocence. Then, one day, his lawyer dropped a bombshell — that friend he'd prayed with at the county jail was planning to testify against him. Lisker remembers hearing the news.
"My jaw [was] on the table," Lisker says. "I think it was at that moment that whatever hope I had shining back at me from my attorney was gone."
It wasn't only his hope for acquittal that was gone. Lisker says it was also his faith that the justice system delivers truth. He spent 26 years behind bars before a court overturned his conviction and set him free.
Today, Lisker teaches creative writing classes to teenage girls at a juvenile hall near Los Angeles. Occasionally, his students ask him for tips on how to survive on the inside.
"Keep your mouth closed and your eyes and ears open. That's pretty much a universally good piece of advice in any custody situation," Lisker tells them.
"The more that you can take in and the less that you can put out, the better."