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Cathleen Burnett

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“Frivolous” Claims by the Attorney General

Prisoners behind walls are invisible, vulnerable, and powerless. In the current climate, the public generally supports harsh treatment for prisoners as “just desserts” for violating the social contract. Political mileage can made by appearing tough on crime through restricting prisoners’ rights. In “‘Frivolous Claims’ by the Attorney General,” Cathleen Burnett examines the veracity of claims by some state attorneys general, who charge that valuable time and money are being wasted by responding to frivolous lawsuits filed by prisoners. In Missouri, the attorney general identified the “Top Ten Frivolous Inmate Lawsuits” and used them as a basis for reform legislation that would punish prisoners for litigating to improve their conditions. Burnett’s content analysis of the cases reveals, among other things, how the list ridicules prisoners’ rights and rhetorically shifts attention away from substantive issues for taxpayers (such as administrative fraud) to one that subverts prisoner claims. The attorney general’s political rhetoric manufactures a problem (similar to a pseudo-war) to promote a conservative political agenda. Although the Missouri statute has constitutional problems with vagueness and few of the lawsuits on the list are legally frivolous (research shows that frivolous lawsuits by prisoners are rare from a legal perspective), the threat of enforcement could reduce legitimate prisoner lawsuit filings and thereby increase the potential for violence.

criminal justice — prisoners — lawsuits, prisoners – lawsuits

Citation: Social Justice Vol. 25, No. 2 (1998): 184-204