CaseCast™ – "What you need to know"
Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant, Gary Ewing (Defendant), was convicted of one count of felony grand theft. Since he had previously been convicted of two or more serious or violent felonies, Defendant was sentenced, under California’s “three strikes” law to 25 years to life in prison.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Three strikes laws, which serve the legitimate goal of deterring and incapacitating repeat offenders, do not violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution’s (Constitution) prohibition on the imposition of a sentence that is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime.
Issue. Does California’s three strikes law violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments, which prohibits sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed?
Held. No. Judgment affirmed. The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment is violated where the sentence is grossly disproportionate to the crime. The examination of a statute challenged on Eighth Amendment constitutional grounds must be guided by the [following] principles: “the primacy of the legislature, the variety of legitimate penological schemes, the nature of our federal system, and the requirement that proportionality review be guided by objective factors–that inform the final one: The Eighth Amendment does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence. Rather, it forbids only extreme sentences that are ‘grossly disproportionate’ to the crime.” Three strikes laws have the clear purpose of isolating career criminals from the general population since traditional forms of deterrence have not been effective. The Constitution does not mandate the adoption of a single, specific penological scheme, but rather, the state legislatures must decid
e this themselves. Hence, California, upon determining that recidivism among criminals presents a serious public safety concern, properly enacted a statute designed to isolate the repeat offender for an extended period. Accordingly, Defendant’s sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the crime committed.
Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stephens), with whom Justice David Souter (J. Souter), Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (J. Ginsburg) and Justice Stephen Breyer (J. Breyer) join, dissents. In direct disagreement with the concurrences, J. Stevens opines that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution indeed “expresses a broad and basic proportionality principle that takes into account all of the justifications for penal sanctions.”
J. Breyer, with whom J. Souter, J. Ginsburg and J. Stevens join, dissents. J. Breyer opines that, Defendant’s recidivism notwithstanding, the sentence imposed is grossly disproportionate to the crime of stealing three golf clubs.
Justice Antonin Scalia (J. Scalia) concurs in the judgment. J. Scalia believes that the principle of “proportionality” cannot be intelligently applied. He opines that since-as the majority acknowledges-a sentence can have a variety of justifications including incapacitation, deterrence, retribution, or rehabilitation, it is insufficient to merely assess whether the gravity of the offense is proportionate to the harshness of the penalty. Certainly, in the present case, a sentence of 25 to life is not proportionate to the theft of three golf clubs. In short, J. Scalia advocates that instead of “read[ing] into the Eighth Amendment