‘Falling in love with your rat’: The criminal informant system in the US
November 18, 2022
HLS Alexandra Natapoff argues in her revised book that snitching undermines justice and recommends what we should do about it.
Harvard Law School welcomes the LL.M. Class of 2021 to campus
November 2, 2022
Dean John F. Manning ’85 invited members of the LL.M. Class of 2021, whose LL.M. year was entirely virtual, to experience life on campus and connect with each other in person.
Who’s Really Cycling In and Out of Cleveland’s Courts? “Career Criminals” Who Aren’t What You Think
October 28, 2022
Deshawn Maines stood in a courtroom inside the Cuyahoga County Justice Center on Nov. 7, 2018, awaiting his sentence. Six months earlier, he had Ubered…
Who’s really cycling in and out of Cleveland’s courts?
October 26, 2022
…“A vast number of people who we sweep into the criminal system are not actually ‘criminal’ in any meaningful sense,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a Harvard…
Woman’s rape cries go unheard in unmonitored drug sting
September 13, 2022
The Washington Post – A woman outfitted with a tiny microphone and hidden camera walked up to a dilapidated drug house on a chilly afternoon…
The Stakes Are High As The Michigan Kidnapping Trial Begins And The Government Is Leaving Nothing To Chance
March 8, 2022
On Tuesday morning, jury selection begins in the long-anticipated trial of four men accused of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the run-up to the 2020 elections. To avoid potential life sentences, the defendants, who argue they were entrapped, will have to overcome a mountain of evidence including hours of their private, often graphic, conversations, as well as testimony from two other defendants in the case who have pleaded guilty and are now cooperating with the investigation. ... BuzzFeed News asked four former federal prosecutors about the use of such statements. None recalled ever having seen one. Harvard Law professor Alexandra Natapoff, among the nation’s preeminent scholars on the use of confidential informants, said she had never heard of informants being asked to sign nondisclosure statements, calling the use of one “interesting.”
WATCH: “‘A Necessary Evil’: The Cost of Confidential Informants,” a KSAT 12 Defenders Investigation
February 14, 2022
Nationwide, police agencies and prosecutors agree that the increased use of confidential informants, or ‘CI’s, has been a boon to fighting crime, especially when it comes to drug trafficking. They claim that informants can often go places and pierce certain social and criminal circles that an undercover officer can’t. Why? Because CIs are often known criminals who got ‘caught in the act’ and were offered a deal: Help make cases against others and you can stay out of jail. Using a known criminal in a key position of trust might sound like a ‘dicey’ proposition and in fact, many in law enforcement call CIs ‘a necessary evil’. ... Meet Alexandra Natapoff, a professor of law at Harvard University, a former Federal Public Defender, and widely considered to be the top expert on confidential informants and their impact on our legal system. Her take? “It results in wrongful convictions,” says Natapoff. “It results in often police corruption. It results in the wrong people being charged and convicted or punished for the wrong things.”
Though confidential informants are often utilized by law enforcement agencies to produce more arrests, the lack of transparency around the process has long had experts concerned. In most cases, confidential informants are suspects that have been arrested or convicted for crimes of their own, but cut a deal with police and prosecutors to reduce their sentence in exchange for information that leads to a more valuable arrest. ... “Criminal law is highly tolerant of the secrecy and the confidentiality, and therefore the lack of transparency and accountability that goes with that in the use of informants,” said Harvard law professor and criminal justice expert Alexandra Natapoff. In some ways, Natapoff said, Texas has set an example on the issue.
Her Son Needed Help. First, He Had to Help the Police.
January 4, 2022
When Troy Howlett collapsed and died in his bedroom in Charles City, Virginia, on the morning of July 30, 2018, his mother, Donna Watson, was on vacation. It was a Monday, and 31-year-old Howlett was starting a new job that day. Watson, knowing her son was nervous about it, kept checking in, growing more worried as she got no response. Later that evening, having run out of reasons why her son wouldn’t or couldn’t call or text back, she asked a friend to look for him. When the friend found her son’s body, he told her it looked like his hands were locked in prayer. ... While Watson has turned to the courts for restitution, she’s also looking to the Virginia state legislature. Some states have adopted legislation to address the problem of unreliability of informants and the wrongful convictions that often result from their misinformation, according to Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Harvard Law School and author of Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. “But those reforms tended not to address the problem of the use of informants who have substance use disorders,” Natapoff told me, “either from the perspective of innocent people who were convicted on that basis or from the perspective of the vulnerable informants themselves, who were often pressured into becoming informants at risk to themselves or risk to their recovery, or had their addiction worsen in their performance of their jobs.”
Misdemeanors ‘Can Haunt A Person For Life’: Why LA’s DA Stopped Charging Many Of Them
December 7, 2021
When Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón took office a year ago, he directed the county’s nearly 1,000 prosecutors to decline charges involving 13 categories of low-level misdemeanors, including driving on a suspended license, drug and paraphernalia possession, and public intoxication. The sweeping new policy called for misdemeanor charges only when there are extenuating circumstances, like repeat offenses. An LAist review of millions of criminal cases found that the reform, dubbed Special Directive 20-07, has led to a dramatic decline in the rate at which the DA charges misdemeanors. ... Progressive academics and community groups say the changes are necessary to address a bloated and unequal criminal justice system, and that low-level criminal charges affect thousands of Angelenos as well as their families and communities. "The record of the misdemeanor arrest can haunt a person for life,” said Harvard law professor Alexandra Natapoff, the author of the book "Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal." People accused of misdemeanors in California are typically arrested or given a citation. If found guilty, a defendant can face a sentence of up to one year in jail and a fine of $1,000. “It can ruin their credit, it can disable their ability to get a job, or a loan, or housing,” Natapoff said. “There’s a whole world of consequences that far outstrip the seriousness of the underlying offense.”
‘Talent is equally distributed; opportunity is not’
November 30, 2021
Future-L, a pilot collaboration between Harvard Law School and the National Education Equity Lab, introduces high-achieving high school students from historically underserved backgrounds to the legal field.
Don’t do it, Jackson: Misdemeanor jail would disproportionately affect residents of color
November 17, 2021
Contrary to what local leaders are telling you, building a new 150-bed “misdemeanor jail” is not going to make Jackson safer. In fact, it will make things worse. ... Further support for saying no to proponents of a new misdemeanor jail is found in Harvard Law School Professor Alexandra Natapoff’s recent book “Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal.”
12 books that best explain America’s incarceration system, according to criminal justice lawyers
August 31, 2021
"Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal" by Alexandra Natapoff, so beautifully tells the story of what tiny things people get dragged into the system for," says Rahman. This highly technical book looks at how misdemeanors create massive inequalities and drag non-dangerous members of the public into prisons.
The Pandemic Prompted Marilyn Mosby To Stop Prosecuting Low-Level Crimes. Will Other DAs Follow?
April 13, 2021
About a year ago, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office stopped prosecuting several low-level offenses—minor drug possession, prostitution, and minor traffic offenses—to reduce the flow of people in and out of local jails and slow the spread of COVID-19. In March, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced she was making the changes permanent. The decision to stay the course, Mosby told The Appeal, was clear...Researchers and advocates have argued for years that more attention needs to be paid to the misdemeanor system, which ensnares millions of people each year but generally gets less public attention than the felony system. Roughly 80 percent of all criminal cases—more than 13 million annually—are misdemeanors, Harvard Law Professor Alexandra Natapoff told The Appeal. “We cannot reduce mass incarceration without reducing the misdemeanor net that sweeps the vast majority of people into the system in the first place,” she said. New declination policies, she added, “are extraordinarily important” to that effort.
A study examining the effect of declining to prosecute lower-level nonviolent offenses — a signature policy adopted by Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins that has drawn both praise and scorn — suggests the approach leads to significantly less future involvement by those defendants in the criminal justice system. The new study, which looked at cases handled by the Suffolk County DA’s office going back to 2004, found that those defendants not prosecuted for lower-level misdemeanor cases were 58 percent less likely to face a criminal complaint over the following two years than those who faced prosecution for similar charges...Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Harvard Law School who has extensively studied the prosecution of misdemeanor offenses, said the study “gives empirical teeth to just how costly and counterproductive low-level misdemeanor arrests and court criminal convictions can be.” Natapoff, author of the 2018 book ‘Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal’, said we have paid far too little attention to the harmful impact on individuals and communities of prosecuting misdemeanors, which account for 80 percent of all criminal cases in the US.
U.S. bail-bond insurers spend big to keep defendants paying
March 26, 2021
Insurance companies have spent $17 million to defeat proposals to weaken or abolish the for-profit bail industry in the United States, a system that brings insurers $15 billion in business a year, according to a Reuters analysis of campaign contributions, company financial statements and interviews with more than three dozens experts on criminal justice, campaign finance or bail. The spending has jumped more than 10-fold since 2010 as insurers have led the industry’s lobbying effort, targeting laws in more than a dozen states, the analysis shows. The industry opposition comes as President Joe Biden and other Democrats have renewed calls to dismantle what they describe as a biased system that harms mostly low-income people...The coalition’s most recent success was in California, the nation’s biggest bail market, home to 3,200 bail agents and 21 bail insurers. In 2018, the state passed a law, known as SB-10, to replace cash bail with a system that would give judges - aided by a computer algorithm - discretion to decide which defendants posed a danger or flight risk. Most minor offenses would not require the assessment. Such minor offenses, known as misdemeanors, account for about 80% of U.S. criminal cases filed annually - and thus the bulk of detention and bail decisions, said Alexandra Natapoff, a Harvard Law School professor who has studied the extent and impact of such arrests.
Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem
March 1, 2021
Join the Harvard Law School Library on March 11 for a live screening and panel discussion of “Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem,” a new documentary about the racial history and modern discrimination of the American misdemeanor system. The film was inspired by HLS Professor Alexandra Natapoff’s book, “Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal.” The screening is also part of the Policing in America lecture series at HLS.
Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem
March 1, 2021
Virtual film premiere and panel discussion of new documentary inspired by HLS Professor Alexandra Natapoff’s book, “Punishment Without Crime.”