Utah Attorney General Jan Graham says it isn't funny, and she isn't joking about doing something about the dozens of frivolous lawsuits filed each year by prison inmates.
It seems inmates want to wear fancy Reebock basketball shoes, have cells furnished with desks, play more volleyball and be coaxed to come out and eat. When they don't get what they want, they sue. And sue and sue.They file so many lawsuits, in fact, that they're costing the state more than $1 million annually, and more than 90 percent of the suits are thrown out of court.
Graham wants to discourage inmates - some of whom have filed as many as 50 lawsuits in one year - by making them pay filing fees, forcing them to use a prison grievance system and creating a "triage" analysis of lawsuits by state and federal courts so the frivolous suits get dismissed before they eat up judges' time and taxpayers' money.
It's obviously a good idea to eliminate lawsuits filed simply because prisoners have time on their hands and are looking for a new form of recreation. The problem is that some needed prison reforms have been prompted by serious lawsuits, and those should be heard.
Making it difficult for inmates to complain in the courts could discourage constructive, legitimate lawsuits and might violate prisoners' constitutional rights. Prisoners, after all, have many of the same rights as ordinary citizens.
However, something has to be done about the costly proliferation of baseless suits. The courts are already bogged down with serious matters, and, as attorneys general from all 50 states agreed in a plea to the U.S. Senate to change the rules in federal judicial systems, now is the time to do it.
Though the prison grievance system has been called "inefficient and a waste of time," that route could make sense. Improving the grievance system and requiring inmates to use it would cut down on recreational suits and bring the serious complaints to the surface.
It would be much the same as requiring divorcing parents to take classes in divorce-stress reduction as a way to mitigate the effects on children, a requirement becoming popular in many courts.
It wouldn't eliminate the right to take the complaint to court but would make it less "fun" for inmates who are only amusing themselves at the state's expense.
Graham's proposal to take frivolous lawsuits into consideration during parole hearings would also make a prisoner think twice before filing. Litigious inmates who persist in taking obviously ridiculous demands to court clearly are not living up to the standards of "good behavior" the parole board looks for.
Graham's office says 40 percent of Utah inmate lawsuits are filed by only 1 percent of the inmates. It's time to let that 1 percent know the fun is over.