Habeas Settlements

Why is it that criminal cases nearly always settle, but habeas corpus cases do not? The vast majority of criminal cases are resolved by guilty pleas, without a trial. But it is the rare habeas petition that is resolved out of court, rather than litigated to completion. This is a significant puzzle because criminal and habeas corpus cases have a lot in common. They involve the same parties and the same attorneys. They also involve similar bargains: the defendant or prisoner receives a shorter, more certain sentence and the prosecutor or government attorney avoids having to litigate a criminal or habeas case, respectively. This is an important puzzle because active settlement of habeas cases could reduce habeas caseloads by nearly one-third. Although most habeas petitions are sure-losers under current law, I estimate that at least 28 percent are sufficiently credible—or costly for the government to defend—that they warrant settlement.

I attempt to resolve this puzzle and propose a series of reforms to pave the way for more active (but safe) settlement of habeas cases. Most notably, I propose that Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure be modified to permit courts to amend sentences upon a habeas settlement, regardless of whether the modified sentence is within the sentencing guideline range for the prisoner’s offense. And, to ensure that any growth in habeas settlements is not at the expense of prisoners’ rights, I propose that courts be required to conduct Rule 11-type colloquies with prisoners before accepting habeas settlements.