I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings…

12.10.07 10 years ago 75 Comments


A few weeks ago, not much was said when it was noted that Big Meech of BMF plead guilty to money laundering & running a continuing criminal enterprise. Even Meech himself spoke in low tones according to reports. Outside of federal investigators putting in years of work, one other important factor helped put the nail in the coffin for Meech and other BMF ringleaders. At the same time, given the publicity & circumstances surrounding T.I.’s case, our attention focuses again to one thing.

The snitch.

Ever since Henry Hill, those in the criminal underworld have played the game, benefited immensely and, when shit hit the fan, they used snitching as an escape clause.

With all of this in mind, I went to Ethan Brown, author of Queens Reigns Supreme, to give me his take on the case, since I knew he had been following the case based on having read his article “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” originally featured in Vibe magazine. For the benefit of our readers, I asked Ethan to give us some insight on what he felt made snitching such a prominent part of America’s current drug trade. In a nutshell, it wasn’t that the people or the “rules” regarding the daily aspects of the drug trade changed. A huge part of it is that federal legislation & sentencing laws helped foster snitching.

1) The Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986

The bill stipulated a 5 year mandatory minimum sentence for trafficking in 5 grams of crack (5 grams is equivalent to the weight of a nickel). Those caught trafficking in powder cocaine received the same 5 year sentence if they trafficked in 500 grams of the drug. Similarly, the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 mandated a 10 year sentence for those caught selling 50 grams of crack while those who trafficked in 5,000 grams of powder received the same 10 year sentence. These huge disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine related offenses are commonly known as the “100:1” ratio. Unsurprisingly, the effect of the sentencing disparities between crack and powder and resulted in long prison terms for thousands of black men. One federal judge in New York actually called such sentencing policies “The New Jim Crow.”

2) The Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1988

The pinnacle of the drive toward extraordinarily punitive drug laws: this bill established a 5 year sentence for simple possession of five grams of crack.

It’s worth noting that both the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988 were passed during periods of drug panic. The ’86 bill was passed after the drug overdose of UMD basketball star Len Bias. The ’88 bill was enacted after the killing of NYPD officer Edward Byrne at the hands of henchmen working for Southeast Queens drug kingpin Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols. These bills were NOT given any real thought or consideration. As Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman recently wrote, these laws were “passed quickly and without reflection.”

3) Section 5k1.1 of the sentencing guidelines and Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Section 5k1.1 of the sentencing guidelines was enacted in late 1987. It provides huge reductions in sentences for defendants who provide “substantial assistance” to federal prosecutors. Since most drug defendants in the federal system faces serious prison time because of the sentencing guidelines, just about everyone snitches in order to get what’s dubbed the ‘5K Letter’ from a prosecutor. And because sentences are so long there’s a huge motive to lie and fabricate evidence in order to get that much coveted ‘5K Letter.’ This is where the snitch game begins. The sentencing guidelines have created a scenario where you can be involved in the drug game, get caught by the feds and then roll over on whomever you feel like in order to get a drastically reduced sentence for yourself. Worse, most times federal prosecutors allow snitches to choose targets.

Another big tool for snitches: Rule 35 which allows defendants to provide information about others more than one year after they are sentenced. The practical effect of this law is to basically allow someone sitting in prison to concoct information about someone else and then reduce their sentence drastically.

It’s time to re-direct anger away from individual snitches and toward the criminal justice system itself. The snitch game simply would not exist without these insane sentencing guidelines which have helped create a massive system of prisons and jails in America that now incarcerates nearly 1.5 million people (in 1970, there were less than 200,000 in prisons and jails in the U.S. This is an eight fold increase which makes us the world’s leading jailer!). Throw your efforts behind sentencing reform which you can read about here:

“U.S. Sentencing Ranges Lowered for Crack Cocaine” (NPR)

“Opening Statement of Senator Jim Webb: ‘Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?'” (Webb.Senate.gov)

Other Related Articles

Black Mafia Family Kingpin Pleads Guilty To Money Laundering, Drug Charges (SOHH)

BMF co-founder follows brother’s lead, pleads guilty. (Creative Loafing)

TSS Presents Smoking Sessions With Ethan Brown


Ethan Brown’s second book, Snitch: Informants, Cooperators and the Corruption of Justice, hits bookstores this week. To purchase, visit Amazon.com or your local bookstore.

For more information, visit Public Affairs Books. Also, read his regular entries at Ethan-Brown.com.

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