In a world seemingly destined to be more and more divided, one thing that almost everybody can agree on right now is that The Rock is basically the best. You probably know him from his wrestling career and his monster hit movies like Jumanji, Furious 7 or Moana, or from his successful TV shows like Ballers. Maybe you remember him from before he was the highest paid actor in the world, back when he was just getting started with movies like Be Cool. Or maybe you just know him from his Instagram. Between all that and that time he officiated Nick Mundy's wedding, I'm a fan. I'm also a fan of his because of a movie he did in 2013 that honestly, you might not have seen, called... Snitch. And that film is what I want to talk about today. Welcome to Out of Frame. On the surface Snitch is just an action movie about a father who would do anything for his son. And yeah, I know, that's pretty cliched. What makes it special to me is that this is based on a true story that exposes a very real issue in our criminal justice system... But we'll get to that. The plot revolves around a man named John Matthews. He's the owner of a mid-sized construction company, living a pretty decent life with his wife and young daughter while his teenage son, Jason, still lives with his ex-wife. One day, Jason gets a video call from a friend vacationing in Mexico. The friend asks him to sign for a package containing a large bag of ecstasy pills, and although at first Jason refuses, his friend sends the package anyway. A few days later when it arrives at Jason's house, he signs for the package and is immediately arrested by DEA officers. It turns out that Jason's "friend" was arrested at the border trying to bring the pills into the United States, and in an attempt to get himself out of trouble he lied and told law enforcement that Jason was the dealer. And even though this is all a set-up and it's Jason's first offense, he's facing 10 to 30 years in prison. Unfortunately, because of the quantity of drugs involved, Jason's arrest landed him in front of the US Attorney and put him at the mercy of a lesser-known aspect of US law called Mandatory Minimum Sentencing. There have always been sentencing guidelines that Judges are supposed to follow, but the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 turned some of those guidelines into requirements. Under these rules, prosecutors -- not judges -- ultimately dictate how long someone will spend in jail purely based on the specific crime they decide to charge them with. The more serious the crime, the more severe the sentencing and there's nothing Judges or juries can do. The result is that prosecutors have incredible power over defendants. Typically, the only way to get a prosecutor to reduce the charge and thus reduce the sentence is to cut a deal... usually by "snitching" on someone they think has higher value. And in the movie, this is exactly what happens to Jason. So... Jason goes to jail and his dad goes to the US Attorney with the hope of convincing her to have mercy, which she will give... on the condition that he helps them get information on the drug cartels, setting the whole plot in motion. The Rock spends the rest of the film exploiting one of his workers (played by Jon Bernthal) to get a connection to the drug trade so he can offer to use his brand new semi-trucks to mule drugs and cash over the border and get information on the cartel kingpins for the DEA. It's an insane and dangerous position, but one he's willing to risk if it means getting his son out of prison. And of course, if this were just a movie, it would be a wild premise... But it's not just a movie. It's what actually happened to a man named James Settembrino and his son Joey in 1992. One day, a good friend called Joey out of the blue and asked if he could pick up a thousand hits of LSD for him, worth a bit over $1000. Joey had never done anything like that before, and initially said no. But his friend kept calling and making requests, so eventually he reluctantly agreed. When he went to go pick up the drugs for his friend, he was caught by the DEA and learned that his friend was an informant who had recently been arrested for selling a small amount of cocaine. He'd been threatened with decades in prison unless he implicated someone else. So he did. Once Joey was arrested, he was presented with the same deal as his buddy: Give the DEA the names of other drug dealers and kingpins, or face 25 years in prison. Joey didn't know anybody and didn't really have any connections to that world, but he also refused to do what his so-called friend did and put another innocent person in that position. So Joey was sentenced to 10 years in Federal prison. That's when Joey's father James started working with the DEA. In exchange for promises of a reduced sentence for Joey, James began making connections with drug dealers, attempting to purchase drugs so that he could pass information to the Feds. The movie version is a little more action-packed than real-life, but Snitch highlights a problem with the criminal justice system that ultimately comes down to sentencing laws that created very poor incentives. Mandatory Minimums create a situation where prosecutors gained significant control over sentencing solely based which specific charges they choose to pursue. As a result, even a first time offending low-level drug dealer might be hit with a charge that carries a longer jail time than some murderers get. And since people respond to incentives, some DAs started using this power to threaten and intimidate suspects. Unfortunately, while the War on Drugs has not been particularly successful at reducing Americans' access to drugs, it's empowered law enforcement at the expense of individual rights and due process. I've talked about the corrupting nature of power on this series many times, and in the name of combating drug-use in the United States, lawmakers have continually concentrated more and more power in the hands of police and prosecutors. This has lead to the increased militarization of local police and the prevalence of SWAT teams, civil asset forfeiture, and it's created numerous opportunities for abusive treatment of prisoners -- even ones who haven't been charged with a crime. It's also lead to overcrowded prisons. Since mandatory minimum sentencing laws were enacted, the Federal prison population has grown from about 24,000 inmates to over 214,000 at its peak. As of 2016, almost half -- 47% -- of male inmates and over half -- 56% -- of female inmates in Federal prisons were sentenced for drug offenses. For me, the takeaway is that one of the most essential lesson of economics is also true of policy-making: Incentives matter. When we make laws that give tons of power to people whose careers benefit from putting as many people in jail as possible and we reduce the standards of due process for the accused, we end up with a whole lot of people in jail. In fact, according to the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, 95% of Federal drug defendants end up pleading guilty in order to avoid the threat of 30-40 year maximum sentences. And these are quite often people who have a lot more in common with Jason or Joey than cartel bosses like El Chapo. Even police groups like Law Enforcement Action Partners, formerly Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, have called for an end to Mandatory Minimum sentencing. And that's why I like Snitch. I think a lot of times we get caught up on the idea that a serious message can only be presented in a serious way, as if the only movies worth thinking deeply about are Academy Award-winning dramas. I've gotten so many comments on videos asking why I bother talking about fiction. But just because a movie features huge action set-pieces and a world-class star doesn't mean it can't also say something important about our world at the same time. Snitch may not be anyone's go to blockbuster, and maybe it won't be your favorite Rock movie... But I hope he does more movies like it, bringing even more attention to issues like this. Hey everybody, thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. If you're interested in learning more about FEE's perspective on maintaining fair institutions and just laws by reining in government power, we have a ton of articles and ebooks on the subject, plus we host seminars and events all over the US throughout the year, including our flagship conference, FEEcon. FEEcon is an awesome 3-Day experience featuring inspiring speakers on topics like entrepreneurship, and creativity, and this year you can even meet my friend Bryan Kelley, who is the CEO of the Prison Entrepreneuship Program. PEP helps teach business skills to inmates within a few years of release in Texas giving them job opportunities and a support network when they get out of prison so they have less of a chance of re-offending or ever going back to jail. You can learn more about the conference and register to attend at feecon.org. Hope to see you there! And please, don't forget to check out FEE.org/shows for all the other content we're producing each week and go ahead and like and subscribe to @feeonline on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See you next time.

Out of Frame

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About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

February 7, 2019

Obviously you're planning on seeing Hobbs & Shaw. But have you seen The Rock's 2013 movie, Snitch? On this episode of Out of Frame, we talk about the corrupting power of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and a lesser-known movie starring The Rock that brought this injustice to the big screen.


Written & Produced by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Arash Ayrom & Sean W. Malone