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How Federal Courts Handle Habeas Corpus Petitions: Is the Process Effective?

NCJ Number
Judges' Journal Volume: 34 Issue: 4 Dated: (Fall 1995) Pages: 4-8,10-11,40
R A Hanson; H W K Daley
Date Published
8 pages
State prisoners can petition Federal courts to review the validity of their convictions and sentences; these petitions, commonly called habeas corpus petitions, allege that criminal proceedings and resulting convictions and/or sentences violated the constitutional rights of prisoners.
If a prisoner's petition is successful, a Federal court can issue a writ of habeas corpus, ordering that the prisoner be released from custody, reducing the sentence, or remanding the case for further proceedings. Habeus corpus petitions are important to understand for three fundamental reasons: (1) the complex relationship between State and Federal courts is highlighted in habeus corpus review; (2) policy proposals concerning the scope of Federal court review arise perennially in Congress and among judges, lawyers, and legal scholars; and (3) the volume of habeus corpus petitions warrants inquiry into case processing efficiency and administration. A study was conducted to review the handling of habeus corpus petitions by 18 Federal district courts in Alabama, California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Many prisoners filing habeas corpus petitions in these courts were convicted of violent crimes by State trial courts and were given a severe sentence. Observed sentencing patterns were related to violent offense patterns, but they also reflected the application of habitual offender laws. In death penalty cases, habeus corpus petitions took a disproportionate amount of time to resolve. About two-thirds of issues in the sampled cases fell into one of the following categories: ineffective assistance provided by defense counsel in the State trial court (25 percent); trial court error (15 percent); violation of due process or other right protected by the 14th amendment (14 percent); and violation of a right protected by the 5th amendment (12 percent). Few case dispositions had outcomes favorable to prisoners. An examination of the length of time involved in Federal review of habeus corpus petitions showed that variations in case processing time occurred because Federal district courts devoted time according to the complexity of issues brought before them. Petitions given the least amount of time failed to meet basic requirements. 14 references, 18 notes, and 12 tables