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PLRA and AEDPA Have Different Effects on Prisoner Petitions

In a December 2001 special report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, determined that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) have had significant, but differing, effects on the filing rates of prisoner petitions. The report is the first to characterize statistically the impact of the PLRA and the AEDPA on prisoners. The analysis focuses on the three most-used categories of prisoner petitions: habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. §§2241, 2254, and 2255; civil rights, 42 U.S.C. §1983; and mandamus, 28 U.S.C. §1361.

From 1980 to 2000, the State prisoner population rose from 305,458 to 1,236,476 men and women. The Federal prison population increased from 24,363 to 145,416 persons in the same period. As prison populations rose, so did the number of petitions filed by prisoners.

Beginning in 1980, the U.S. Congress sought to reduce the number of prisoner civil rights petitions filed by passing the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). The number of petitions filed, though, continued to rise, primarily because of the tripling of the State prison population from 1980-1995. To further limit civil rights filings by prisoners, Congress passed the PLRA, effective April 1996. Also effective April 1996, in an effort to reduce successful habeas corpus petitions filed in Federal courts, Congress passed the AEDPA. PLN has reported extensively on the effects of both these pieces of legislation.

In 1996, State and Federal prisoners filed 41,768 civil rights petitions, a rate of 37 petitions filed for every 1,000 prisoners. By 2000, even with continued prison population growth, the PLRA had reduced prisoner civil rights petitions to 25,504, a rate of 19 petitions per 1,000 prisoners.

In contrast, the AEDPA failed to reduce State or Federal prisoner habeas corpus petitions. State prisoners filed habeas corpus petitions in 1996 at a rate of 13 per 1,000 prisoners. By 2000, State prisoner habeas corpus petitions had risen to 21,345 filings, a rate of 17 per 1,000 prisoners. For Federal prisoners the report found that "... the AEDPA does not appear to have had any statistically significant impact on the filing rate of habeas corpus petitions (including §2255 petitions to vacate a sentence)...." The increase in Federal habeas corpus filings was attributed solely to increasing prison population.

Different States and regions exhibit different filing rates. Southern states have almost half the State prisoners. In 2000, Southern State prisoners filed 53% of the civil rights petitions and 42% of the habeas corpus petitions. New Mexico, Virginia, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, and Alabama had the highest rates of State prisoner petitions filed. Alaska, Utah, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Connecticut, and Ohio had the lowest filing rates. The report does not address how "... changes in prison administration and conditions ... impact the rate at which inmates file petitions and the number of petitions filed."

The report is available free of charge at The report number is NCJ 189430, and is titled Prisoner Petitions Filed in U.S. District Courts, 2000, with Trends, 1980-2000.

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