Texas Cracks Down on the Market for Jailhouse Snitches

Texas has become a national leader in criminal-justice reforms, after having long accommodated some of the worst practices and abuses in the nation. The state, particularly in light of past abuses, deserves credit for seeking innovative solutions to problems that have long proved resistant to change.

The new law requires prosecutors to keep thorough records of all jailhouse informants they use — the nature of their testimony, the benefits they received and their criminal history. This information must be disclosed to defense lawyers, who may use it in court to challenge the informant’s reliability or honesty, particularly if the informant has testified in other cases.

The law was recommended by a state commission established in 2015 to examine exonerations and reduce the chances of wrongful convictions. The commission also persuaded lawmakers to require procedures to reduce the number of mistaken eyewitness identifications and to require that police interrogations be recorded — smart steps toward a fairer and more accurate justice system.

But the new procedures on jailhouse informants shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. Under longstanding Supreme Court rulings, prosecutors are required to turn over any evidence that might call an informant’s credibility into question — such as conflicting stories or compensation they get in exchange for their testimony. Yet far too many fail to do so.

A better solution would be to bar the use of compensated informants outright, or at least in cases involving capital crimes, as one Texas bill has proposed. Studies have shown that even when a defense lawyer is able to make the case that an informant has an incentive to lie, juries are just as likely to convict. And that’s assuming a defense lawyer uses such evidence — not always a safe assumption given the wide range of quality in the defense bar.

Also, making evidence admissible at trial only goes so far. The vast majority of convictions are the result of guilty pleas, which means a defendant may not even find out that an informant was paid to incriminate him before having to decide whether to accept a plea offer.

Some states have begun to require that judges hold hearings to test an informant’s reliability, much as they would test an expert witness’s knowledge — before the jury can hear from him.

But the deeper fix that’s needed is a cultural one. Many prosecutors are far too willing to…

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