06 Jan 24

What is Substantial Assistance? How Snitching Can Reduce Prison Time

| by

Last Updated on: 15th January 2024, 10:59 pm

What is Substantial Assistance?

Substantial assistance refers to when a defendant provides information to law enforcement that significantly helps further an investigation or prosecution of another person. This typically involves providing information about other people involved in criminal activities.Defendants who provide substantial assistance are often looking for leniency in their own criminal case in exchange for the information they provide. This leniency usually comes in the form of a reduced sentence or charges. Providing this kind of assistance is sometimes referred to as “snitching.”

How Snitching Can Reduce Prison Time

There are a few ways that providing substantial assistance can help reduce a defendant’s potential prison sentence:

Plea Agreements: As part of plea negotiations, prosecutors may offer a lighter sentence recommendation in exchange for substantial assistance. So if a defendant is facing 10 years in prison but provides very helpful information, the prosecutor may recommend only 5 years instead.

Downward Departures at Sentencing: Even without a plea deal, defendants can argue for a reduced sentence at their sentencing hearing if they provided substantial assistance. This allows the judge to go below standard sentencing guidelines and give a more lenient sentence.

Rule 35 Motions: After sentencing, prosecutors can file a “Rule 35 motion” asking the judge to reduce a defendant’s sentence as a reward for providing substantial help after the fact. So they may start off with a 10 year sentence, offer assistance later, and have it reduced to 5 years.

5K1.1 Letters: Federal prosecutors can submit a “5K1.1 letter” during sentencing asking the judge to depart from guidelines and impose a lower sentence based on substantial assistance. These letters outline all the ways the defendant helped investigations and prosecutions.The amount of sentence reduction a defendant sees depends on the significance of the help they provide. More substantial assistance generally leads to greater sentencing discounts. But there is always risk as no guarantees are made.Providing substantial assistance can be risky too. Defendants may put themselves in danger by snitching on dangerous people. And if prosecutors feel the information was not useful enough, they may refuse to file motions for lower sentences. So while snitching can pay off big time, it has to be the right information provided to the right people.I hope this overview on substantial assistance and the incentives for defendants to provide it helps explain this common aspect of criminal sentencing. Let me know if you have any other questions!


  • [This video] explains more about how substantial assistance works in federal cases (YouTube)
  • [This article] goes deeper into 5K1.1 letters and Rule 35 motions (FindLaw)
  • [Overviews of substantial assistance] on sites like Avvo and LawInfo
[This video]:
[This article]:
[Overviews of substantial assistance]: