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Habeas Corpus Study

Review by Jon Marc Taylor

A recent discussion paper published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports the results of the National Center for State Courts analysis into the processing of federal habeas corpus petitions. The study encompassed 18 Federal district courts located in 9 selected states (Alabama, California, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas), which comprise approximately half of the nation's 10,000 yearly filings. The report breaks down by state the number of habeas corpus filings per 1,000 prisoners. Nationally the average is 14, with Missouri and North Dakota leading the commonwealths with 37 and the District of Columbia closing the list at 3 filings per 1,000 prisoners.

The most frequently raised challenge to a conviction is that the prisoner received ineffective assistance of counsel; fewer issues claim constitutional violations by the trial court, prosecutor, or the police. Nearly a third (31%) of petitions raise a single issue, with 26% raising two issues, 30% three issues, and 11% four issues or more.

Only 1% of the sentences involve death penalties, although 21% are life sentences. Case processing time was found to vary widely with 25% of the cases processed within 83 days, 50% within 175 days, 75% within 379 days and 90% by 761 days.

Case complexity seems to determine the processing time, with the greater number of issues raised resulting in longer processing time. Additionally, related factors such as appointment of counsel and evidentiary hearings increasing processing time, as well.

The manner of habeas corpus dispositions range from 63% being dismissed, 35% denied on the merits, 1% granted on the merits, with 1% remanded to state courts. Reasons for dismissal of habeas corpus petitions range from 57% for failure to exhaust state remedies, 12% for procedural default, 7% for violations of court deadlines and rules, followed by eight other reasons.

National Center for State Court staff associates Roger A. Hanson and Henry W. K. Daley conclude the report with a brief discussion of the possible implications of the research for the national policy debate. One implication is that the debate might be focusing too narrowly on death-penalty cases.

Secondly, they recommend a need to refocus on the question of whether there should be greater deference to state courts. The authors suggest that a more complete and coherent policy of deference toward the state courts should also be encouraged through a renewed dialogue among Federal and State judges on potential changes in key legal doctrines.

With all the attention focused on prisoners use of the courts from civil litigation to habeas corpus restrictions in the anti-terrorism bill, this report provides arguments on both sides of the issue and should be studied closely. Copies of Federal Habeas Corpus Review: Challenging State Court Criminal Convictions, NCLT155504, can be obtained by calling 800-732-3277 or writing BJS Clearinghouse, P.O. Box 179, Annapolis, MD 20701-0179.

[Editor's Note: This BJS report largely agrees with a prior study done by the National Center for State Courts. See April, 1995, PLN, "Federal Habeas Rarely Granted."]

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