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A tale of two laws revisited: Investigating the impact of the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act and the antiterrorism and effective death penalty

NCJ Number
Date Published
103 pages

This report presents research results from an investigation of the effectiveness of two policies aimed at regulating the use of the legal system by state prisoners: the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.


This report addresses the ongoing national debate on important criminal justice issues and policies by providing the results of an analysis into the effectiveness of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) to decrease federal habeas corpus petitions, and the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) which allows prisoners to challenge the conditions of their confinement, these cases are commonly referred to as Section 1983 cases. The AEDPA focused on applications for writs of habeas corpus filed by prisoners challenging the validity of their convictions and sentences, known as habeas corpus petitions. The authors provide a deep analysis of the research and findings of their investigation into AEDPA and the PLRA, and suggest that there are five overarching lessons that emerge from what happened to prisoner litigation after the passage of the two Acts: first, intrinsic difference between a lawsuit and an application for a writ put Congress in a much better position to influence Section 1983 cases than habeas corpus petitions; second, the new exhaustion requirements incorporated in the PLRA and the pre-existing exhaustion doctrine governing Federal habeas corpus are not equivalent; third, the nature of prisoner population plays a role in inhibiting the efforts to reduce the number of habeas corpus petitions but no similar role in reducing Section 1983 cases; fourth, the success of PLRA and AEDPA cannot be judged by examination of only the number of prisoners’ cases that are filed; and fifth, U.S. Congress should be able to improve its policy initiatives in the area of prisoner litigation in the future.

Date Published: January 1, 2004