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'Snitch cards' use inmates to help solve crimes

By Chance McCracken, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Jul 5th, 2011 @ 11:55am



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SALT LAKE CITY -- Inmates in the Okaloosa County Jail in northwest Florida face the same problems that most inmates across the country face when serving time: bad meals, expensive phone calls and strict visiting hours. A controversial program instituted by the jail, however, gives inmates the chance to pass the time helping solve crimes in the area and make a little money in the process.

Sometimes referred to as "snitch cards" by inmates, this program is quite simple. The deputies distribute unsolved crime cards (similar to baseball cards) with details of unsolved crimes along with any relevant pictures. Inmates have toll free numbers they can call from the jail free of charge with tips; if these tips lead to an arrest, the inmate is eligible to receive a cash reward.

This program is an extension of a statewide initiative in Florida known as "Cold Case Playing Cards." Originally inspired by the "Personality Identification Playing Cards" used by the U.S. Military to identify member's of Saddam Hussein's government, Polk County initially introduced the playing card program for the county's own cold cases. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (F.D.L.E.) liked the idea so much that they teamed up with the Attorney General, Department of Corrections and Crimestoppers to do a set of statewide cold case decks. The program has produced three sets of decks so far.

The cards have been disseminated to over 300,000 inmates and probationers and, according to Heather Smith, spokesperson for F.D.L.E., has been "very successful."

The obvious question, assuming this program is successful, is why don't Utah's county jails have similar procedures in place to help solve crimes and protect the public?

Positive benefits of using "Cold Case Playing Cards"

The rationale behind this program is simple: nobody understands the mind of a criminal better than other criminals. Also, convicts tend to associate with other convicts (both on the inside and on the outside). Secrets usually have a very short shelf life in an incarceration setting.

The cash incentive offered for providing tips should be a powerful motivator for many inmates to get involved in this program. A little money behind bars can go a long way. Each inmate has a balance that they carry (usually referred to as their "books") that allows them to purchase various items through the commissary (sometimes known as a canteen).

Almost all jails offer three meals a day (the Maricopa County Jail in Arizona, run by "America's Toughest Sheriff," Joe Arpaio, is one exception, serving only two meals per day). The food served, however, isn't usually very good, and many inmates opt to supplement or even replace the meals provided with snacks and food bought at the commissary. In some jails, such as the Okaloosa County Jail, inmates can also buy calling cards. This helps reduce the burden on friends and family members on the outside who otherwise must accept collect calls.

Some people also feel that having inmates involved in crime solving rather than crime committing might be rehabilitative. The term "institutionalized" in a prison setting usually refers to somebody who has become so complacent with their role as a criminal in the legal process that they stop responding to positive reinforcement and incentives. For some inmates, providing tips that lead to closure for victims of crimes may provide hope that he or she can again be an upstanding, productive citizen.

Heather Smith of F.D.L.E., who sponsors the Florida program, says that most inmates who participate in the cold case program are more interested in helping families and victims than they are in the reward.

Constantly reminding inmates that the county takes law enforcement seriously and that unsolved cases (and even cold cases) are still a priority for the police should serve as a deterrent once inmates are released.

Risks posed by "Cold Case Playing Cards"

For all of the promise that Florida's "Cold Case Playing Card" program presents, it would be foolish, if not dangerous, to ignore the potential consequences.

The nickname applied to this program by Okaloosa County Jail inmates, "snitch cards," is telling. In the jail ecosystem, a "snitch" is typically considered one rung above a child molester. If somebody is a known snitch, they are usually taken into protective custody to protect them from inevitable violence. Introducing this program in county jails across Utah would require careful consideration and implementation.

Even if inmates are briefly separated from general population to fill out these cards, it may be obvious to other inmates that somebody is providing information if he or she suddenly has money and commissary items. There is also a risk that an inmate not providing information who has generous friends on the outside putting money in the inmate's account might be erroneously identified as a snitch.

Some inmates may provide false information to police. This could be malicious, such as providing a red herring to intentionally derail police efforts, or simply misguided. Inmates might exaggerate their knowledge of events and people in the hope that their efforts will result in a reward.

Should Utah's county jails institute a "snitch card" program?

The real question is how effective a "Cold Case" or "snitch card" program would be here in Utah. Mario Chapa, a recent inmate in the Okaloosa County Jail, said "I don't know of anyone filling out anything."

Heather Smith, however, says that "one of our primary goals of the program is anonymity." It is possible that other inmates are just not aware that their fellow inmates are participating in the program.

While the F.D.L.E. does not share statistics about the success of the program in Florida they point to the implementation of similar programs in other areas as proof that the model works. Among the areas introducing "snitch card" programs are fourteen Florida counties, eleven other states and one region in Australia.

The cost of designing and printing cards with information and pictures of unsolved crimes should be minimal. The real cost of implementation lies in designing the award payout, verifying that inmates can submit tips and receive rewards anonymously and monitoring the program for abuse.

The potential return on investment measured in terms of crimes solved per dollar invested in the program could be significant. Counties are responsible for walking a fine line between providing the safest community possible and ensuring that taxpayer money is spent wisely; Florida's "Cold Case Playing Card" program should be considered by counties across Utah as a potential key to serving these goals.

Chance McCracken is a senior editor for JailMedia, an online information network providing real interviews from ex-inmates of county jails across the United States. Chance has been involved with hundreds of inmate interviews.

Chance McCracken

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