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Prisoner Petitions in the Federal Courts, 1980-96

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 29, 1997         202/307-0784


     WASHINGTON -- The rate at which state and
federal prisoners filed petitions in United States
district courts seeking release from prison or
alleging civil rights violations fell 17 percent
between 1980 and 1996, the Department's Bureau of
Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today.  Sixty
percent of the petitions filed alleged civil
rights violations, and about a quarter sought
habeas corpus relief.  
     Although the total number of filings grew
from 23,230 in 1980 to 68,235 in 1996, the rate
decreased from 72.7 per 1,000 prisoners to 60.5
per 1,000 inmates during the 16-year period as the
prison population grew from 319,598 to 1,128,274. 
In 1996 prisoner petitions made up about 25
percent of all civil filings in U.S. Courts,
compared to 14 percent in 1980.  The majority of
these petitions (81 percent during 1996) were
filed by state inmates.  
     The U.S. district courts ruled in favor of
the inmates in fewer than 2 percent of all
prisoner petitions disposed of during 1995, the
latest year for which these data are available. 
The courts dismissed 62 percent of the cases and
the government prevailed in 36 percent.  The
government or the prisoners appealed 24 percent of
the petitions disposed of in the district courts.
     The federal appellate courts disposed of
14,333 state and federal prisoner petitions during
1995.  In 94 percent of the cases the appellate
courts upheld the lower courts' rulings.
     The inmates represented themselves in about
90 percent of the cases.  Because the actions are
civil, rather than criminal, indigent filers are
not entitled to a government-paid attorney. 
Lawyers for indigent prisoners are appointed
solely at the discretion of the court--usually
when the court believes the facts to be clear but
the legal issues are too complex for an inmate to
     The BJS analysis of prisoner petitions shows
the number filed per 1,000 prisoners during 1995
to vary substantially by state--ranging from highs
of 149 petitions per 1,000 inmates in Iowa, 142 in
Arkansas and 125 in Mississippi to lows of 20 per
1,000 in Massachusetts, 22 in North Dakota and 25
in Ohio.
     While the increase in state inmate petitions
reflects a growing number of petitions alleging
civil rights violations, the increase in federal
inmate petitions reflects more petitions
challenging the constitutionality of the federal
sentence imposed.  The number of petitions filed
by federal inmates grew  seven-fold from 1980
through 1996--from 1,322 to 9,729.
     Most (96 percent) of the increase in federal
inmate petitions challenging the sentence imposed
followed the implementation of major reforms to
federal sentencing policy.  The Sentencing Reform
Act, which took effect on November 1, 1987,
established federal guidelines, abolished parole,
reduced good conduct time and required increased
sentences for recidivists.  In addition, the Anti-
Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 and the
Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1990
established mandatory minimum sentences for
defendants convicted of drug trafficking.  
     During 1995, state death row inmates filed
129 habeas corpus petitions in the federal courts. 
Additionally, 21 percent of all state prisoners
under a death sentence (648 inmates) had a
petition active in the federal courts.  Death
penalty petitions represented about 2 percent of
all habeas corpus petitions in the federal courts. 
Unlike other prisoner petitions, in 96 percent of
these cases the inmate was represented by a
     Single copies of the report, "Prisoner
Petitions in the Federal Courts, 1980-96" (NCJ-164615), 
by BJS statistician John Scalia, may be obtained by 
clicking on BJS's homepage on the Internet at:

     Single copies of the complete report may also
be obtained from the BJS fax-on-demand system by
dialing 301/519-5550, listening to the complete
menu and selecting document number 83.  For the
news release and a report summary select document
84.  Or call the BJS Clearinghouse number: 1-800-732-3277.  
Fax orders for mail delivery to 410/792-4358.
     Additional criminal justice materials can be
obtained from the Office of Justice Programs
homepage at:

After hours contact: Stu Smith at 301/983-9354
Date Published: October 29, 1997