Brief Fact Summary. An individual with a criminal history of non-violent felonies was subject to a recidivism statute after being convicted of another felony.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. “[A]s a matter of principle[,] a criminal sentence must be proportionate to the crime for which the defendant has been convicted.”
Issue. “[W]hether the Eighth Amendment proscribes a life sentence without possibility of parole for a seventh nonviolent felony[?]”
Held. Yes. “The principle that a punishment should be proportionate to the crime is deeply rooted and frequently repeated in common-law jurisprudence.”
“There is no basis for the State’s assertion that the general principle of proportionality does not apply to felony prison sentences. The constitutional language itself suggests no exception for imprisonment. We have recognized that the Eighth Amendment imposes ‘parallel limitations’ on bail, fines, and other punishments and the text is explicit that bail and fines may not be excessive. It would be anomalous indeed if the lesser punishment of a fine and the greater punishment of death were both subject to proportionality analysis, but the intermediate punishment of imprisonment were not. There is also no historical support for such an exception. The common-law principle incorporated into the Eighth Amendment clearly applied to prison terms. And our prior cases have recognized explicitly that prison sentences are subject to proportionality analysis.” The majority observed due to the uniqueness of capital punishment, “that, [o]utside the context of capital punishment, successful cha
llenges to the proportionality of particular sentences [will be] exceedingly rare.’ This does not mean, however, that proportionality analysis is entirely inapplicable in noncapital cases.”
The majority held “as a matter of principle that a criminal sentence must be proportionate to the crime for which the defendant has been convicted. Reviewing courts, of course, should grant substantial deference to the broad authority that legislatures necessarily possess in determining the types and limits of punishments for crimes, as well as to the discretion that trial courts possess in sentencing convicted criminals. But no penalty is per se constitutional. As the Court noted [in Robinson] a single day in prison may be unconstitutional in some circumstances.”
The court then sets forth various objective factors that should be addressed when reviewing sentences under the Eighth Amendment. They include “(i) the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty; (ii) the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction; and (iii) the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions.”
Other principles can also be considered. They include the “absolute magnitude of the crime” and the “culpability of the offender”.
“[The Respondent’s] crime was ‘one of the most passive felonies a person could commit.’ It involved neither violence nor threat of violence to any person. The $100 face value of [the Respondent’s] ‘no account’ check was not trivial, but neither was it a large amount. One hundred dollars was less than half the amount South Dakota required for a felonious theft. It is easy to see why such a crime is viewed by society as among the less serious offenses. Helm, of course, was not charged simply with uttering a ‘no account’ check, but also with being a habitual offender. And a State is justified in punishing a recidivist more severely than it punishes a first offender. [The Respondent’s] status, however, cannot be considered in the abstract. His prior offenses, although classified as felonies, were all relatively minor. All were nonviolent and none was a crime against a person. Indeed, there was no minimum amount in either the burglary or the false pretenses statutes and the minimum
amount covered by the grand larceny statute was fairly small.”
“In sum, there were a handful of crimes [in South Dakota] that were necessarily punished by life imprisonment: murder, and, on a second or third offense, treason, first-degree manslaughter, first-degree arson, and kidnaping. There was a larger group for which life imprisonment was authorized in the discretion of the sentencing judge, including: treason, first-degree manslaughter, first-degree arson, and kidnaping; attempted murder, placing an explosive device on an aircraft, and first-degree rape on a second or third offense; and any felony after three prior offenses. Finally, there was a large group of very serious offenses for which life imprisonment was not authorized, including a third offense of heroin dealing or aggravated assault.”
“Criminals committing any of these offenses ordinarily would be thought more deserving of punishment than one uttering a ‘no account’ check – even when the bad-check writer had already committed six minor felonies. Moreover, there is no indication in the record that any habitual offender other than [the Respondent] has ever been given the maximum sentence on the basis of comparable crimes. It is more likely that the possibility of life imprisonment under 22-7-8 generally is reserved for criminals such as fourth-time heroin dealers, while habitual bad-check writers receive more lenient treatment. In any event, [the Respondent] has been treated in the same manner as, or more severely than, criminals who have committed far more serious crimes.”
“Finally, we compare the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions.” “It appears that Helm was treated more severely than he would have been in any other State.”
The court also observed “The possibility of commutation is nothing more than a hope for ‘an ad hoc exercise of clemency.’ ”
“Applying objective criteria, [the majority found] that [the Respondent] has received the penultimate sentence for relatively minor criminal conduct. He has been treated more harshly than other criminals in the State who have committed more serious crimes. He has been treated more harshly than he would have been in any other jurisdiction, with the possible exception of a single State.”
Dissent: Chief Justice Burger, Justice White, Justice Rehnquist and Justice O’Connor filed a dissenting opinion observing “[t]he controlling law governing this case is crystal clear, but today the Court blithely discards any concept of stare decisis, trespasses gravely on the authority of the states, and distorts the concept of proportionality of punishment by tearing it from its moorings in capital cases.” The dissenting justices observed that “in [Rummel v. Estelle] a life sentence imposed after only a third nonviolent felony conviction did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Today, the Court ignores its recent precedent and holds that a life sentence imposed after a seventh felony conviction constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.” Further, the justices “reject[ed] the fiction that all [the Respondent’s] crimes were innocuous or nonviolent. Among his felonies were three burglaries and a third conviction for drunken
driving. By comparison Rummel was a relatively ‘model citizen.’ ”
Discussion. This case confronts the proportionality requirement of the Eighth Amendment when it comes to sentencing.