Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).
Congress, in 1996, with overwhelming bipartisan support, passed the PLRA in response to a steady rise in inmate litigation that was clogging the Federal Court system. At the time of its passage, it was estimated that inmate litigation was costing the states over $75 million a year to defend.
Congress did not enact the PLRA in a vacuum. It held hearings and rendered findings, concluding that prisoners filed more frivolous lawsuits than any other class of persons. Congress found that the number of prisoner lawsuits had “grown astronomically–from 6,600 in 1975 to more than 39,000 in 1994.” 141 Cong. Rec. S14408-01, * S14413 (daily ed. Sept. 27, 1995). Indeed, by 1995 more than twenty-five percent of the suits filed in federal district court were brought by prisoners. Roller v. Gunn, 107 F.3d 227, 230 (4th Cir. 1997) (citing Administrative Office of the United States Courts, 1995 Federal Court Management Statistics 167). Congress intended section 1997e(a) to “curtail the ability of prisoners to bring frivolous and malicious lawsuits by forcing prisoners to exhaust all administrative remedies before bringing suit in Federal court.” 141 Cong. Rec. H1472-06, * H1480 (daily ed. Feb. 9, 1995). The Act also limits the amount of attorney’s’ fees available in proportion to any damages awarded.
By all accounts, the PLRA was incredibly successful in reducing the number of suits filed by inmates. The number of filings by inmates in the Federal Courts dropped from nearly 25 annual filings per 1000 prisoners in 1996 to 10 filings per 1000 prisoners today.1 While access to the Courts is a hallmark of our democracy, valid efforts by our legislative branch to free up limited judicial resources by eliminating frivolous claims should be celebrated. The past twenty years have demonstrated that the PLRA strikes an appropriate balance between opening the courthouse doors to truly aggrieved inmates while efficiently disposing of those suits without any true merit, saving taxpayers and local governments millions of dollars a year.
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