What are the pros and cons of the Prison Litigation Reform Act?
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) has several pros and cons. These pros and cons are determined by the side of the argument you take. There are several restrictions the PLRA places on prisoners wanting to file in forma pauperis, or as an indignant person. These form the basis for the benefits and drawbacks of the measure. The law protects prison officials from frivolous suits but also discourages legitimate complaints from being introduced.
The PLRA requires all prisoners to use their prison systems administrative process to address any actions before reverting to the federal court system. A prisoner filing a federal lawsuit needs to show they tried and failed to find satisfaction through all other means. The benefit of this requirement is it discourages prisoners from using the federal court system as a first resort to address their issues, many which may be minor. It prevents the federal judicial system from being bogged down by minor complaints best handled at the institutional level. One negative aspect of this part is the power the institutions have over prisoners. Prisoners are subject to the whims of the institution and may find themselves facing discriminatory practices that are not actionable in federal court because of the mandate to exhaust all local means if possible.
Another aspect of the law is the "three strikes" rule. The rule states a prisoner will lose their right to file in forma pauperis if they have three cases dismissed by a judge for being frivolous, malicious or not having a proper legal foundation. The pro is it keeps prisoners from using the federal court system to harass prison officials with worthless lawsuits. The con for the prisoner is it discourages filing without an attorney. An indignant prisoner may have a complaint and file the lawsuit without an understanding of the law and without ill intention toward the prison. The lawsuit can be dismissed and the prisoner effectively punished for failing to comprehend the complexity of the law.
The PLRA also requires prisoners to pay the full cost of the filing fee. They can use commissary funds or other means to pay, but the fee cannot be waived regardless of the validity of the complaint. The benefit to the court is two-fold. It ensures the prisoner has some skin in the game, meaning they are financially invested in the case. It also ensures the judicial system is reimbursed for the handling of the case. Waiving the fee would cost the system a lot of money every year. The downside to this rule is it can discourage prisoners from filing legitimate complaints because they do not feel they can afford the fee. Commissary funds are often a treasured source of money for prisoners and giving up even a small portion can negatively affect their quality of life.