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Twenty Years After Reform, Inmate Litigation Still Crowds Dockets

A million dollars in damages for melted ice cream. Cruel and unusual punishment for having to listen to country music. A suit demanding L.A. Gear or Reebock shoes instead of prison-issued Converses. An emotional distress claim for receiving crunchy, instead of creamy, peanut butter.1

Are these the types of lawsuits to which our courts should be devoting time and resources?

Congress apparently thought otherwise when they passed – with overwhelming bipartisan support – the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of the PLRA, a legislative responsein the wake of a sharp rise in prisoner litigation in the federal courts.According to bill sponsors,2 the national Association of Attorneys General estimated at the time that the inmate “litigation explosion” cost the states more than $81 million a year to defend. The goal of the Act, frankly acknowledged, was to reduce the number of prisoner suits filed in order tocur[b]  frivolous prisoner litigation and topreserv[e] . . . our limited appellate resources.”

The Fifth Circuit’s comments prior to the PLRA also highlighted the need for the Act:

Unlike most litigants, prisoners have everything to gain and nothing to lose by filing frivolous suits. Filing a suit in forma pauperis costs a prisoner little or nothing; time is usually of little importance to a prisoner and prisoners are not often deterred by the threat of possible sanctions for malicious or frivolous actions or perjury. Moreover, a prisoner, while he may be unsuccessful, can at least look forward to “a short sabbatical in the nearest federal courthouse.” Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 327 (1972) (Rehnquist, J., dissenting). Thus, the temptation to file frivolous or malicious suits is strong, and these suits clutter up the federal courts, wasting scarce and valuable judicial resources, subjecting prison officials unnecessarily to the burdens of litigation and preventing prisoner suits with merit from receiving adequate attention.

To reduce frivolous prisoner litigation, the PLRA requires inmates to exhaust administrative remedies before suing; prohibits additional claims after an inmate has three claims dismissed as frivolous (the “three-strikes” rule); requires in forma pauperis litigants to pay partial filing fees; and limits attorney’s fees in cases of represented inmates.

Since the PLRA was enacted, the number of prisoner suits filed has certainly fallen – from around 25 annual filings per 1000 prisoners in 1996 to about 10 per 1000 prisoners today. Yet, federal judges still devote vast amounts of time to prisoner suits. Here in the Fifth Circuit, inmate appeals, in forma pauperis mandamus proceedings, and habeas corpus proceedings make up over 40 percent of the Court’s caseload, totaling about 3500 filings per year. Habeas corpus petitions are up almost 170 percent over the past year – from 484 in 2015 to 1304 in 2016.3 And given that over 90 percent of prisoner appeals are unsuccessful, there must still be a certain percentage of frivolous claims – though certainly, an unsuccessful appeal does not necessarily imply frivolity.

In a judicial system plagued by delays due to massive caseloads and limited resources, efforts to eliminate frivolous claims are appropriate. In subsequent posts, such efforts will be further explored.

by Anna Little Morris

© 2015 Barrett Photography: Michael & Dianne ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

© 2015 Barrett Photography: Michael & Dianne ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

1 Sponsors of the Prison Litigation Reform Act listed these among their “Top Ten Frivolous Inmate Lawsuits Nationally,” when urging support for the Act. See 141 Cong. Rec. S14611-01 at *S14629.

2 See 141 Cong. Rec. S14611-01 at *S14626.

3 While the PRLA was not designed to address habeas corpus proceedings, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) was passed around the same time and enacted similar provisions to address habeas proceedings – implementing a statute of limitations on habeas filings, requiring inmates to exhaust appeals at the state level before filing in federal court, and requiring a panel of federal district judges to approve successive petitions before filing in court. However, the AEDPA has had a reverse effect compared to that of the PLRA; habeas filings have seen a dramatic increase. The Bureau of Judicial Statistics, though, has cited the increased prison population as the root cause of this increase, not any defect of the AEDPA. See