Perceptions of the Consequences of the Prison Litigation Reform Act: A Comparison of State Attorneys General and Federal District Judges

By Smith, Christopher E.; Nelson, Christopher E. | Justice System Journal, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Perceptions of the Consequences of the Prison Litigation Reform Act: A Comparison of State Attorneys General and Federal District Judges


Smith, Christopher E., Nelson, Christopher E., Justice System Journal


This study examines the consequences of the Prison Litigation Reform Act by comparing survey responses of state attorneys general and federal district judges. Respondents from both groups agreed that the act reduced prisoner lawsuits, deterred prisoners from initiating civil-rights litigation, and had led to the termination of judicial orders and consent decrees and the cessation of the use of special masters in supervising judicial remedies. The two groups diverged in their perceptions of whether the act deters federal judges from taking remedial action and whether federal judges faithfully comply with the statute's requirements. These differences may reflect the judiciary's inclination to defend its image, yet the judges did not demonstrate such self-protectiveness when asked whether the act infringed upon judicial authority. This issue may reflect tension between judges' desire to protect their authority and their interest in reducing their prisoner caseloads. Overall, the act appears to be reducing prisoner litigation and limiting judges' authority to order remedies in prisoners' cases.

Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (PLRA) to accomplish several related objectives.1 The act imposed barriers on prisoners' ability to file civil-rights lawsuits against state officials, and it limited the authority of federal judges to order remedies in prisoners' civil-rights cases. If policymaking is viewed as redistributing or defining benefits and burdens, prisoners bore significant new burdens in filing civilrights lawsuits, and states gained benefits through additional protections against liability and judicial remedies. In addition, the federal judiciary was both an intended beneficiary and the bearer of additional burdens. Because many judicial officers viewed prisoners' lawsuits as unduly burdensome and rarely meritorious, the statute sought to benefit judges by reducing their caseloads of prisoner lawsuits. Simultaneously, the PLRA diminished judges' authority to order remedies in cases concerning prisoners' rights.

Because of the substantial growth of prison populations nationwide during the 1990s, the PLRA has special significance for prisoners, government attorneys, and the courts. With nearly two million people housed in American prisons and jails at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the act will shape the definition and application of constitutional rights for prisoners, the workloads and expenses of state and federal attorneys general offices, and the caseloads of federal courts. The PLRA's impact may be even more important if it produces unanticipated consequences that create new burdens rather than advance intended objectives. This study seeks to evaluate the impact of the PLRA through the eyes of its intended beneficiaries and thereby assess the consequences of the statute for current and future judicial policymaking in corrections.

Background of Prison Litigation Reform Act

Advocates of federalism and judicial restraint supported the PLRA because they believed that states were burdened excessively by undue judicial interference in correctional administration (Solano, 1997). The PLRA responded to state governments' complaints about the high costs of defending against prisoners' "frivolous" lawsuits (Camp, 1997). The National Association of Attorneys General has been described as "a moving force in getting the [PLRA] through Congress," so it is no surprise that the statute seeks to limit litigation by state prisoners and constrain intervention in state corrections systems by federal judges ("Inmate Litigation and the PLRA," 1996). In addition, the act addressed some federal judges' long-standing concerns about the caseload burdens imposed by prisoner litigation (Johnsen, 1976). As illustrated by the federal judge who responded to this survey by commenting, "Prisoner litigation is out of control!," some judges feel strongly that steps must be taken to reduce legal filings by prisoners.

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