Must Sentences Be Proportionate to Comply with the Eighth Amendment’s Prohibition Against Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

In Harmelin v. Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court makes clear that there is no proportionality requirement for criminal sentences. Here are some important facts regarding this case:

  • The petitioner, Harmelin, was convicted of possessing 672 grams of cocaine and sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole because he was a recidivist.
  • Harmelin argued that this sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment and, therefore, violated the Eighth Amendment.
  • The petitioner proffered two main arguments in support of this assertion:
    • The sentence was significantly disproportionate to the crime.
    • The judge was statutorily required to impose it, without any regard for the circumstances of the case.

Although the Supreme Court has repeatedly denied the appropriateness of any proportionality analysis, it has proffered examples of extreme circumstances when such an analysis might come into play, such as parking violations being punished by life imprisonment. Even though proportionality is not a principle of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions may provide additional protections by guaranteeing proportionality.

The Supreme Court declines to use proportionality analysis because it does not want to substitute its judgment for the state legislature, which enacts state criminal statutes. Although the Eighth Amendment does not require proportionality, it forbids extreme sentences. Thus, an appellate court is only required to engage in intra-jurisdiction and inter-jurisdiction analysis when dealing with an extreme case in which the punishment shows gross disproportionality. In its 2008 Kennedy v. Louisiana decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was an excessive punishment when a death did not occur as a result of the crime, even if that crime was the brutal rape of an 8-year-old child.