Federal Habeas Corpus Relief: Background, Legislation, and Issues [Updated January 12, 2007]   [open pdf - 162KB]

"Federal habeas corpus is the statutory procedure under which state and federal prisoners may petition the federal courts to review their convictions and sentences to determine whether they are being held contrary to the laws or the Constitution of the United States. In 1996, Congress passed legislation that restricted a prisoner's ability to seek relief through the writ of habeas corpus. The 109th Congress considered legislation that would have further restricted a state prisoner's access to federal habeas relief, and would have provided for expeditious habeas review of cases where a child, public safety officer, or state judge was killed. The 110th Congress may consider similar issues. At issue for Congress is whether it should further restrict state prisoners' access to federal habeas relief by limiting the federal role in policing constitutional violations in the states' criminal justice systems. Two issues have emerged as Congress considers such legislation - trial finality and adequate representation. Proponents contend that restricting state prisoners' access to federal habeas relief is necessary due to many prisoners filing excessive and frivolous claims that result in a backlog in the system and substantial delays in the processing of these cases. Critics contend, however, that many states' criminal justice systems are flawed, with many indigent defendants lacking proper representation throughout all stages of the criminal justice system. They argue that for many defendants, the writ of habeas corpus plays a key role in restoring justice when the system fails."

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CRS Report for Congress, RL33259
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