AEDPA Drives Mass Incarceration

When we talk about things that fuel mass incarceration, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) is rarely considered as one of the causes for the over-incarceration of U.S. residents. But take a closer look and you’ll see that the AEDPA has played an integral role in keeping the nation’s prisons full and the prison-industry fat and happy. That’s because the AEDPA was purposely designed to prevent prisoners from challenging their convictions and sentences under habeas corpus in federal court, and that means prisoners serving wrongful and illegal sentences are forced to stay in prison serving those sentences.

The AEDPA Wasn’t Needed

Have you ever wondered why the AEDPA was created by Congress? Well, so have many scholars and federal judges who have weighed in on the AEDPA and agreed that it wasn’t needed. Prior to President Bill Clinton signing the AEDPA into law in 1996, the federal courts had a good handle on limiting habeas corpus challenges by prisoners to their convictions and sentences. For example, the Supreme Court handed down numerous decision in an effort to curb abuse of the Great Writ. The following is a list of some of those decisions:

  • Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S 72 (1977) (must show ’cause and prejudice’ for federal habeas court to hear claims not properly raised earlier).
  • Summer v. Mata, 449 U.S. 539 (1981) (deference must be afforded to state court decisions).
  • Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. 509 (1982) (requiring ‘total exhaustion’ of claims in state court before moving to federal court).
  • Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880 (1983) (requiring a ‘substantial showing of the denial of a federal right’ to appeal habeas denial).
  • Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989) (limiting retroactivity of new Supreme Court decision on habeas review).
  • McClesky v. Zant, 499 U.S. 467 (1991) (preventing more than on habeas petition without good cause).
  • Keeney v. Tamayo-Reyes, 504 U.S. 1 (1992) (must show ’cause and prejudice’ to obtain evidentiary hearing in federal habeas court).
  • Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993) (establishing strict ‘substantial and injurious effect’ standard of review for habeas review by federal court).

These are just some of the decisions handed down by the Supreme Court prior to the AEDPA to control the abuse of habeas corpus by prisoners. While a Supreme Court is binding on all federal courts, the Court usually left some room for a judge’s discretion to grant habeas relief in deserving cases. And judicial decisions are always subject to change in order to adapt to the current judicial environment. Even the Supreme Court itself has overturned its decisions to better align with fundamental fairness or, God forbid, when the high court admits that it was wrong.

AEDPA Removed a Judge’s Discretion to Grant Habeas Relief

The problem with Congress codifying the Supreme Court’s decisions limiting habeas relief, turning them into statutory mandates, is that it took away the discretion of federal judges in granting habeas relief to undo wrongful and illegal sentences. By making the pre-AEDPA restrictions into binding law, Congress trumped federal judges by taking their power away. Even if a federal judge wanted to grant habeas relief to a prisoner serving an illegal sentence he can’t, thanks to the AEDPA.

Maybe Judge Henry Friendly was right, when he said that habeas relief should be limited to only the rarest of cases. In his well-known Chicago Law Review article, ‘Is Innocence Irrelevant?’, he argued that habeas corpus should be an extraordinary remedy, and that federal courts only ‘act as a safety net to catch the few truly innocent people who have slipped through the cracks.’ He wrote this back in 1970, when the Supreme Court was expanding habeas relief in federal courts. Was he warning that opening the doors too wide would eventually prompt Congress to slam the door shut for everyone? Not exactly. But applying the clarifying effects of hindsight all these years later, it could be taken that way.

AEDPA’s Actual-Innocence Trap

Sure, the AEDPA says it makes exceptions for those who are innocent of their crimes. But the reality is that there are so many procedural obstacles that prisoners often cannot obtain habeas relief in actual-innocence cases. Even if the prisoner claiming actual innocence manages to get around all those obstacles, he had one more major hurdle to clear: Deference. Under the AEDPA, a federal court must give deference to a state court’s decision, no matter how ridiculous is might seem. That is, unless no ‘fair-minded jurist’ would disagree with it. The Supreme Court says that’s a difficult thing to prove, and Congress designed it that way on purpose. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86 (2011).

Actual innocence under the AEDPA has lots of disclaimers, too. For example, in Velez Scott v. United States, 890 F.3d 129 (11th Cir. 2018), the Eleventh Circuit held that a Brady error, which might have proved that the prisoner was actually innocent of his conviction, wasn’t enough to meet the actual-innocence exceptions under the AEDPA. In Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), the Supreme Court held that when the prosecutor withholds favorable evidence from the defense, the defendant’s constitutional rights are violated. The Eleventh Circuit held in Velez Scott that because the Brady error actually occurred when the government withheld the favorable evidence the petitioner was too late under the AEDPA’s one-year limit — even though it was the government’s fault. The insanity of this reasoning underscores AEDPA as a catalyst fueling mass incarceration, keeping people in prison who probably shouldn’t be there.

Think about this disturbing fact. Ever since DNA evidence began exonerating innocent prisoners, The Innocence Project says that more than 2,000 of them have been released from prison, even from death row. But should this number be higher? DNA evidence didn’t become a reliable source of exonerations until after the AEDPA was enacted. How many prisoners have been denied habeas corpus relief despite DNA evidence showing they’re likely innocent of their conviction? The Bureau of Justice Statistics collects data on habeas petitions filed that are granted or denied, but not about the substance of the claims made. Even if it did, a procedural dismissal of a habeas petition wouldn’t reach the merits of the claims anyway. So that data wouldn’t be helpful without a full merits review by a habeas court. The AEDPA precludes any review of the merits if a procedural bar prevents relief.

Pro Se Prisoners Face Impossible Barriers Under the AEDPA

One thing the AEDPA did for sure was erect some major procedural barriers to habeas relief for pro se prisoners. That’s a major factor in the super-low success rate of habeas petitions because those petitions are almost always filed without a lawyer. AEDPA’s procedural bars make it too easy for a court to dismiss any hope for relief. While most of the procedural rules are ‘affirmative defenses’ that the state or government must raise, it’s hard to find a prosecutor who would pass on the easy way to keep a person in prison, no matter how egregious the error was.

One of the easiest and most common procedural bars raised by prosecutors in response to a habeas petition is the AEDPA’s one-year time limit. State and federal prisoners get just one year to file for habeas relief. 28 U.S.C. section 2244(d)(1) and 2255(f). That clock, however, starts when the criminal judgment becomes ‘final.’ If you think one year is enough time to file a habeas petition, you need to consider that after sentencing a prisoner is often shipped around and held for many months at various holding facilities and transfer centers before finally arriving at his destination prison. Once there, he has to wait for his legal papers to show up or wait for his lawyer to send them (often a busy public defender). Requests for legal papers by prisoners usually get ignored by lawyers, leaving prisoners with little to go on to establish their claims. By the time they get their claims together and the petition filed, that one-year clock (if the prisoner is even aware of it) has usually expired. If the prosecutor enforces the statute of limitations defense, the court will dismiss the petition without hearing the claims.

State prisoners also have to ‘properly’ exhaust any remedies in the state courts before filing for federal habeas relief. This means properly filing any appeals and properly going through the postconviction process there. One misstep and the federal court won’t hear the claims. Again, it’s AEDPA’s procedural bars that often kill habeas petitions, and not the claims themselves.

Under AEDPA’s seemingly endless procedural obstacles, it’s rare that petitions reach the merits stage. Even the ones filed by lawyers. For pro se filer, it’s almost unheard of. It doesn’t matter how strong the claims are. It doesn’t matter how ‘innocent’ the person might be. It doesn’t matter how bad the prosecutor’s conduct was during the criminal proceedings. AEDPA doesn’t care.

The Fallacy of Finality

The one-year limit was added to the AEDPA by lawmakers at the last minute and without any explanation. In the beginning, courts said it was to speed up the death penalty. That made sense, since the ‘E’ in AEDPA promised an ‘Effective’ death penalty. But when it quickly became clear that the AEDPA did nothing to speed up the death penalty — actually, the wait times on death row have doubled since AEDPA became law — courts switched gears and began saying the one-year limit was to promote ‘finality’ of criminal convictions. This is interesting since nowhere in the legislative history did Congress say this was the purpose of the time limit. In fact, the time limit was added without any discussion by lawmakers. No reason was given.

In reality, the AEDPA slows down the courts because of its shoddy drafting. Judges have to spend their time interpreting vague passages in the law that no two judges can agree on. And judges have complained about this. The late Justice Antonin Scalia once remarked in open court about the AEDPA, ‘Who is responsible for writing this?’ It seems that Congress’ rush to erect obstacles to prisoners filing for relief from wrongful and illegal sentences in order to reduce the workload on the courts actually created more work for the judges. And the time limit also set up another time-waster for the courts: Prisoners have to file every claim imaginable in the petition because they only get one shot at relief and can’t file claims after the one-year limit, no matter how good they are.

Before the AEDPA, prisoners’ chances of habeas relief were dismal. After the AEDPA, the rate of success dropped to not even one half of one percent. There are so many procedural obstacles that courts rarely reach the merits of a prisoner’s claims. The numbers don’t lie: The rate of imprisonment before the AEDPA was 500 per 100,000 U.S. adults. After, the rate shot up to 700 per 100,000. AEDPA continues to keep the prisons and the pockets of prison-industry investors full.

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