It`s no secret that nearly every request for post-conviction relief by a prisoner gets tossed out of court before it even begins. This is because of the procedural hurdles that lawmakers and judges have thrown in the way of relief, even for valid claims. Lots of organizations and groups have attempted to fix the problem, mostly by trying to remove these hurdles or helping prisoners file their claims.
But I think there`s a more effective way: By fixing the problem that created this mess in the first place.
However, this will take some guts and humility because, well, the problem begins with the prisoners themselves — not the lawmakers and judges. We have to admit that poor filings by prisoner got us into this predicament. I’m not saying that prisoners filed bad claims on purpose to anger the judges. Just the opposite. I think prisoners just didn`t know what they were doing and judges got sick of spending time on filings where relief couldn`t be granted. Pile enough of those filings on a judge`s desk and he`ll do whatever it takes to stop the flood.
That`s what created the seemingly endless procedural obstacles that block relief in the courts from illegal convictions and sentences. So, going back to the root of the problem lets us create a solution that has a good chance of working.
My idea is simple yet complex: To improve the post-conviction filings by prisoners and then work on dismantling the procedural roadblocks that keep thousands of people wrongfully incarcerated. It`s simple because it can be done with existing resources at any jail or prison. It`s complex because we`re trying to convince a legal system that has been abused by prisoners in the past to give them another chance. That can only be done through changed behavior.
A wise man once said to a roomful of prisoners, “If you want society to give you another chance, you gotta give them a reason.” Good advice. I think this same reasoning applies in trying to show that prisoners deserve another chance at relief in the courts from their illegal sentences.
Dale Chappell is the author of hundreds of published articles on the federal criminal justice system, and the Insider`s Guide series of federal post-conviction books. He is a consultant in federal post-conviction procedure and an authority on federal sex offense issues.