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Damn Lies and Statistics

Most PLN readers are well aware of the conservative PR campaign designed to convince legislators and the voting public that the courts are threatened with drowning in a deluge of prisoner-initiated litigation. The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) has developed model legislation designed to severely limit prisoner-initiated litigation. This legislation has been passed or is being considered by most states. [See: 'TX Anti-Litigation Law" in the Jan. '96 issue of PLN ] The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Stop Turning Out Prisoners Act (STOP) last fall. When the bill reached the Senate, Senators Orrin Hatch and Bob Dole substituted their Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) for the STOP language, and that version passed the Senate in September. The final version of the bill was vetoed by President Clinton and as of this writing is back in congress for further revisions.

The NAAG's campaign to target prisoner litigants is being waged not only in the state houses, but through the media via a well coordinated PR campaign. Media outlets across the country have been fed "Top Ten" frivolous prisoner lawsuit press releases, and since prisoners are a favorite scapegoat of the media, those press releases received prominent coverage.

To lend credence to their anti-prisoner propaganda, the press releases typically cite statistics 'proving" how pervasive the problem of prisoner litigation is. Oft cited are figures such as the following: In 1986 the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts counted about 22,000 § 1983 lawsuits filed by prisoners. In 1992 the number of prisoner § 1983 lawsuits was approximately 26,800 - a 22 percent increase in just six years! The NAAG press releases provide no further statistical analysis, implying that none is needed. Consider, however, the following:

In that same six-year period (1986-1992) the number of prisoners increased 62 percent. So even though the number of prisoner-initiated lawsuits rose during that period, it actually decreased on a per capita basis.

According to Department of Justice figures there were 882,500 state and federal prisoners in 1992. Considering that they filed 26,800 lawsuits, that indicates about one lawsuit for every 33 prisoners.

Are prisoners "more litigious" than the rest of society? The National Center for State Courts recorded 14.8 million civil lawsuits filed by the general public in 1993. Using 1990 census figures to estimate the total U.S. population at 250 million, that means the public filed one civil lawsuit for every 17 Americans. That is almost twice the rate at which prisoners litigate!

But those figures are for state courts. Who is the plaintiff in most lawsuits settled by the federal courts? The federal government is the plaintiff in more civil suits adjudicated by federal courts than prisoners and private citizens combined.

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