Habeas Corpus and State Sentencing Reform: A Story of Unintended Consequences
King, Nancy J., 1958-
This Article tells the story of how fundamental shifts in state sentencing policy collided with fundamental shifts in federal habeas policy to produce a tangled and costly doctrinal wreck. The conventional assumption is that state prisoners seeking habeas relief allege constitutional errors in their state court convictions and sentences. But almost 20 percent of federal habeas petitions filed by noncapital state prisoners do not challenge state court judgments. They instead attack administrative actions by state prison officials or parole boards, actions taken long after the petitioner's conviction and sentencing. Challenges to these administrative decisions create serious problems for federal habeas law, which is designed to structure federal review of state court judgments and is ill suited to review administrators' actions. Courts find themselves trying to squeeze square pegs into round holes, and the confusion is particularly intolerable given the stakes for prisoners, state prison systems, and federal courts. This Article is the first to identify this significant problem, to analyze its disparate and complicated causes, and to propose a simple and rational way for Congress to respond.