Editor's note: Alexandra Natapoff is professor of law at Loyola Law School and an expert on criminal informants. Her book, "Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice," won the 2010 ABA Silver Gavel Award Honorable Mention for Books. CNN looks at the story of Ernest Withers, the civil rights photographer-turned-FBI informant, in "Pictures Don't Lie," an In America special, at 8 p.m. ET February 26. Watch the trailer for "Pictures Don't Lie."
(CNN) -- In 1998, I was a community lawyer in inner-city Baltimore and taught an after-school law class for neighborhood kids. One evening, a boy of about 12 said something that would change my thinking forever.
"I got a question," he said, leaning forward intently. "Police let dealers stay on the corner 'cuz they snitching. Is that legal? I mean, can the police do that?" When I explained that they could, he and his friends slumped down in disgust. "That ain't right!" and "The police ain't doing their jobs!" they exclaimed. "So all you gotta do is snitch," another concluded, "and you can keep on dealing."
Fifty years ago, "snitching" had a very different meaning. Last fall, it was claimed that Ernest Withers -- nicknamed the "original civil rights photographer" -- was working as a paid FBI informant even as he snapped iconic pictures of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Little Rock Nine and striking sanitation workers.
Withers, who died in 2007, was a classic example of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's infamous policy of using informers to infiltrate political organizations. The policy created deep and lasting mistrust between many civil rights activists and the FBI, and it infused the term "snitch" with new political significance.
By using informants to infiltrate civil rights organizations, it was if the U.S. government had declared those organizations to be criminal.
Today, the use of informants has spread far beyond any single law enforcement agency or agenda. And these are not merely interested parties looking to do some good; vast numbers of today's informants are criminals themselves, men and women who trade information in exchange for plea bargains, lighter sentences and other deals.
It's unclear why Withers chose to be an informer. Reports in The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis paper that broke the story last fall, said he was probably paid up to $200 a month; Withers had eight children to support.
But every year, tens of thousands of offenders have their own reasons, giving the government information to avoid criminal charges or work off their sentences. Some of that information is true; much of it is false, as dozens of exonerations have proved.
In exchange for that information, law enforcement must make deep compromises, tolerating informant crimes in order to make new cases. Although informants can be powerful crime-solving tools, their information comes at a steep price.
The compromise has taken a toll on the integrity of the criminal system. Defendants, lawyers, police and judges alike have grown accustomed to the idea that justice is negotiable and even the most heinous crimes can be worked off.
Though widespread, the costs of informant policies are not equally distributed. As my young student so succinctly explained, snitching has become a fact of life in poor minority neighborhoods where drug enforcement, and therefore informant use, is heavily concentrated.
Because such a high percentage of young black men are under criminal justice supervision at any given time -- 50 percent in some neighborhoods -- and because so many of those cases are drug-related, the law enforcement habit of converting drug arrestees into snitches, or relying on informants to make arrests and get warrants, has a disproportionate effect.
In these areas, residents must contend with the knowledge that friends, family and neighbors may be committing crimes with impunity or seeking information to work off their own liability. This is a destructive phenomenon, threatening social networks and bonds of trust, and undermining residents' perceptions of the police.
My Baltimore student let me glimpse this reality; more fundamentally, he showed me how deeply the legal system had betrayed him.
Accustomed to dealers on street corners, he and his friends already knew the criminals were snitching. For them, the revelation was that the police were in on the deal and that the law tolerates such things. They remind me of the Memphis civil rights activists who thought the FBI should have protected their organizations and not infiltrated them.
These students still believed in the idea of the police "doing their jobs." And yet they could see that police policies -- the ones that "let dealers stay on the corner 'cuz they snitching" -- exposed the neighborhood to yet more crime and lawlessness.
Somehow, 50 years after King, the law still isn't doing its job here. If Ernest Withers were alive today, he should snap a picture of those Baltimore kids; they prove that the civil rights movement still has a long way to go.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alexandra Natapoff.