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Last year, Don was a college student in the Chicago suburbs, dealing marijuana and mushrooms to a small circle of friends. Bill, a college buddy, introduced him to Jack, who became Don’s best client, providing much of the 600 bucks Don pulled in every month. But Don soon learned the truth: Jack was a cop and Bill a former dealer working for a narcotics squad in lieu of serving a drug term.

Don didn’t serve any time; the cops signed him up. He set up two fellow students to expunge the drug charge from his record. “It’s like conscription in the Civil War,” says Don. “You can either serve the time or buy someone else to serve it for you.”

Finks are big business. In 1994, the Drug Enforcement Agency shelled out $14 million to its stoolies; in fact, in 1993 alone, U.S. federal law enforcement agencies spent $97 million on all kinds of informers–four times what they spent in 1985. The percentage of federal drug cases where defendants’ sentences were reduced due to “substantial assistance”–that is, finking–rose from 11.8 in 1990 to 30.7 in 1993. But some government officials are publicly questioning the use of finks, calling it “out of control” and a threat to the integrity of the criminal justice system.

Why squeal on your friends? It’s a no-brainer: First-time, nonviolent offenders face federally instituted, minimum 5-year-without-parole sentences for possessing 1 gram of LSD, 5 grams of crack cocaine, or 100 marijuana plants with intent to distribute. A recent Cato Institute study found that drug offenders with no prior record are sentenced to one year longer in prison (on average) than violent offenders. According to a 1994 Federal Judicial Center report, 70 percent of the prison population’s growth since 1985 is attributable to these lengthy drug sentences.

So finkers, fearing long stints in the joint, reach out and touch someone. Grateful Dead concerts are exceptionally fertile ground. Rob Lake, doing time in a prison in Jefferson City, Mo., was set up by a Deadhead after being approached at a concert. Louie Olmeda is serving 10 years in a Greencastle, Ind., prison for distributing LSD to another Deadhead, who set him up “in exchange for a lighter sentence and the return of his tour bus.”

Groups against mandatory minimum sentencing lobbied successfully for a “safety valve” in President Clinton’s crime bill that leaves imposing such sentences to a judge’s discretion. But the new Congress’ spin on the bill may ensure that finking will persist, except for the few dealers who maintain some semblance of honor.

Deadhead M. Reddick still has more than three years left on the sentence he is serving in Maxwell, Ala., because he wouldn’t rat on anyone else. “I walk around here with my head held high, because nobody’s in prison for what I said,” says Reddick. “For that reason, I can do my sentence. No problem.”

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