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Broken Gate? A Study of the PLRA Exhaustion Requirement Past, Present, and Future
Unformatted Document Text:  Broken Gate? curtailed (Robertson, 2007). In the year 2005, only 2,653 inmate civil rights cases were appealed to our nation’s 13 circuit courts of appeal, and only 1% of those cases were granted certiorari to be heard by the United States Supreme Court (Robertson, 2007, p. 184). The impact of the PLRA has also been felt by the act’s primary intended beneficiaries – the federal district courts and state attorney general offices whose workloads were hoped to dramatically decrease because of the legislation (Smith & Nelson, 2002). Responding to a survey conducted in late 1999, 72.4% of state assistant attorneys general and 61.4% of federal district judges answered that they believed the PLRA had reduced the number of section 1983 inmate lawsuits (Smith & Nelson, 2002, pp. 296-299). Also revealing, 89.7% of those assistant attorneys general polled and 75% of those federal judges polled responded that they believed the PLRA to have a deterrent affect on would-be prisoner-litigants (Smith & Nelson, 2002, p. 301). This deterrent effect is likely impacted the most by the seemingly innocuous PLRA exhaustion requirement - which prisoner’s rights advocates have deemed “the most damaging component” of the Act (Schlanger, 2002, p. 1650). The Exhaustion Requirement The proverbial “teeth” of the PLRA, at least insofar as volume reduction is concerned, is what is known as the exhaustion requirement (Belbot, 2004). Specifically, the PLRA prohibits inmates from filing lawsuits in federal or state courts without having first exhausted their administrative remedies vis-à-vis the applicable grievance system at 11

Authors: Passarelli, Mariah.
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Broken Gate?
curtailed (Robertson, 2007).  In the year 2005, only 2,653 inmate civil rights cases were 
appealed to our nation’s 13 circuit courts of appeal, and only 1% of those cases were 
granted certiorari to be heard by the United States Supreme Court (Robertson, 2007, p. 
184).
The impact of the PLRA has also been felt by the act’s primary intended 
beneficiaries – the federal district courts and state attorney general offices whose 
workloads were hoped to dramatically decrease because of the legislation (Smith & 
Nelson, 2002).  Responding to a survey conducted in late 1999, 72.4% of state assistant 
attorneys general and 61.4% of federal district judges answered that they believed the 
PLRA had reduced the number of section 1983 inmate lawsuits (Smith & Nelson, 2002, 
pp. 296-299).  Also revealing, 89.7% of those assistant attorneys general polled and 75% 
of those federal judges polled responded that they believed the PLRA to have a deterrent 
affect on would-be prisoner-litigants (Smith & Nelson, 2002, p. 301).  This deterrent 
effect is likely impacted the most by the seemingly innocuous PLRA exhaustion 
requirement - which prisoner’s rights advocates have deemed “the most damaging 
component” of the Act (Schlanger, 2002, p. 1650).
The Exhaustion Requirement
The proverbial “teeth” of the PLRA, at least insofar as volume reduction is 
concerned, is what is known as the exhaustion requirement (Belbot, 2004).  Specifically, 
the PLRA prohibits inmates from filing lawsuits in federal or state courts without having 
first exhausted their administrative remedies vis-à-vis the applicable grievance system at 
11


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