The Eighth Amendment Does Not Guarantee Proportionate Sentencing

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The Eighth Amendment Does Not Guarantee Proportionate Sentencing

Antonin Scalia

Ronald Allen Harmelin was convicted of cocaine possession and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He appealed, arguing that the sentence was cruel and unusual for two reasons: first, that the sentence was disproportionate to the crime he committed; and second, that the judge had been required by Michigan law to impose such a sentence without considering the circumstances of the crime. The Supreme Court in Harmelin v. Michigan (1991) determined that some of its prior rulings had been wrong and that the Eighth Amendment includes no proportionality guarantee; that is, the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee that similar crimes will receive punishments that are proportionate in degree of severity. In the following excerpt from the Court's opinion, Antonin Scalia explains that the decision is based on the fact that proportionality is subjective, that it is difficult to assess the gravity of a crime and to compare "similarly grave" offenses, and that the process of comparing sentences between states is complex and often impossible. Harmelin's life sentence without the possibility for parole was therefore upheld. Antonin Scalia has served on the Supreme Court since 1986.


Antonin Scalia, majority opinion, Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 1991.

Primary Source Text

Petitioner [Ronald Allen Harmelin] was convicted of possessing 672 grams of cocaine and sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without possibility of parole. The Michigan Court of Appeals initially reversed his conviction because evidence supporting it had been obtained in violation of the Michigan Constitution. On petition for rehearing, the Court of Appeals vacated its prior decision and affirmed petitioner's sentence, rejecting his argument that the sentence was "cruel and unusual" within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment. . . .

Petitioner claims that his sentence is unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual" for two reasons: first, because it is "significantly disproportionate" to the crime he committed; second, because the sentencing judge was statutorily required to impose it, without taking into account the particularized circumstances of the crime and of the criminal.

The History of Proportionality in the Court

The Eighth Amendment, which applies against the State by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment, provides: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." In Rummel v. Estelle [1980], we held that it did not constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" to impose a life sentence, under a recidivist statute, upon a defendant who had been convicted, successively, of fraudulent use of a credit card to obtain $80 worth of goods or services, passing a forged check in the amount of $28.36, and obtaining $120.75 by false pretenses. We said that "one could argue without fear of contradiction by any decision of this Court that for crimes concededly classified and classifiable as felonies, that is, as punishable by significant terms of imprisonment in a state penitentiary, the length of the sentence actually imposed is purely a matter of legislative prerogative." We specifically rejected the proposition asserted by the dissent (opinion of Powell, J.) that unconstitutional disproportionality could be established by weighing three factors: (1) gravity of the offense compared to severity of the penalty, (2) penalties imposed within the same jurisdiction for similar crimes, and (3) penalties imposed in other jurisdictions for the same offense. A footnote in the opinion, however, said: "This is not to say that a proportionality principle would not come into play in the extreme example mentioned by the dissent, . . . if a legislature made overtime parking a felony punishable by life imprisonment."

Two years later, in Hutto v. Davis [1982], we similarly rejected an Eighth Amendment challenge to a prison term of 40 years and fine of $20,000 for possession and distribution of approximately nine ounces of marijuana. We thought that result so clear in light of Rummel that our per curiam [by the court as a whole] opinion said the Fourth Circuit, in sustaining the constitutional challenge, "could be viewed as having ignored, consciously or unconsciously, the hierarchy of the federal court system," which could not be tolerated "unless we wish anarchy to prevail." And we again explicitly rejected application of the three factors discussed in the Rummel dissent. . . .

A year and a half after Davis we uttered what has been our last word on this subject to date. Solem v. Helm [1983], set aside under the Eighth Amendment, because it was disproportionate, a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole, imposed under a South Dakota recividist statute for successive offenses that included three convictions of third-degree burglary, one of obtaining money by false pretenses, one of grand larceny, one of third-offense driving while intoxicated, and one of writing a "no account" check with intent to defraud. . . .

Having decreed that a general principle of disproportionality exists [in the footnote discussing overtime parking in Robinson, which was later referred to in Davis] the Court used as the criterion for its application the three-factor test that had been explicitly rejected in both Rummel and Davis. . . .

Our 5-to-4 decision eight years ago in Solem was scarcely the expression of clear and well accepted constitutional law. . . . Accordingly, we have addressed anew, and in greater detail, the question whether the Eighth Amendment contains a proportionality guarantee—with particular attention to the background of the Eighth Amendment . . . and to the understanding of the Eighth Amendment before the end of the 19th century. . . . We conclude from this examination that Solem was simply wrong; the Eighth Amendment contains no proportionality guarantee. . . .

Proportionality Is Subjective

We think it enough that those who framed and approved the Federal Constitution chose, for whatever reason, not to include within it the guarantee against disproportionate sentences that some State Constitutions contained. It is worth noting, however, that there was good reason for that choice—a reason that reinforces the necessity of overruling Solem. While there are relatively clear historical guidelines and accepted practices that enable judges to determine which modes of punishment are "cruel and unusual," proportionality does not lend itself to such analysis. Neither Congress nor any state legislature has ever set out with the objective of crafting a penalty that is "disproportionate"; yet . . . many enacted dispositions seem to be so—because they were made for other times or other places, with different social attitudes, different criminal epidemics, different public fears, and different prevailing theories of penology. This is not to say that there are no absolutes; one can imagine extreme examples that no rational person, in no time or place, could accept. But for the same reason these examples are easy to decide, they are certain never to occur. The real function of a constitutional proportionality principle, if it exists, is to enable judges to evaluate a penalty that some assemblage of men and women has considered proportionate—and to say that it is not. For that real-world enterprise, the standards seem so inadequate that the proportionality principle becomes an invitation to imposition of subjective values.

The Difficulty of Assessing Gravity

This becomes clear, we think, from a consideration of the three factors that Solem found relevant to the proportionality determination: (1) the inherent gravity of the offense, (2) the sentences imposed for similarly grave offenses in the same jurisdiction, and (3) sentences imposed for the same crime in other jurisdictions. As to the first factor: Of course some offenses, involving violent harm to human beings, will always and everywhere be regarded as serious, but that is only half the equation. The issue is what else should be regarded to be as serious as these offenses, or even to be moreserious than some of them. On that point, judging by the statutes that Americans have enacted, there is enormous variation—even within a given age, not to mention across the many generations ruled by the Bill of Rights. The State of Massachusetts punishes sodomy more severely than assault and battery, . . . whereas in several States, sodomy is not unlawful at all. In Louisiana, one who assaults another with a dangerous weapon faces the same maximum prison term as one who removes a shopping basket "from the parking area or grounds of any store . . . without authorization." A battery that results in "protracted and obvious disfigurement" merits imprisonment "for not more than five years," one half the maximum penalty for theft of livestock or an oilfield seismograph. We may think that the First Congress punished with clear disproportionality when it provided up to seven years in prison and up to $1,000 in fine for "cut[ting] off the ear or ears, . . . cut[ting] out or disabl[ing] the tongue, . . . put[ting] out an eye, . . . cut[ting] off . . . any limb or member of any person with intention . . . to maim or disfigure," but provided the death penalty for "run[ning] away with [a] ship or vessel, or any goods or merchandise to the value of fifty dollars." But then perhaps the citizens of 1791 would think that today's Congress punishes with clear disproportionality when it sanctions "assault by . . . wounding" with up to six months in prison, unauthorized reproduction of the "Smokey Bear" character or name with the same penalty, offering to barter a migratory bird with up to two years in prison, and purloining a "key suited to any lock adopted by the Post Office Department" with a prison term of up to 10 years. Perhaps both we and they would be right, but the point is that there are no textual or historical standards for saying so.

The difficulty of assessing gravity is demonstrated in the very context of the present case: Petitioner acknowledges that a mandatory life sentence might not be "grossly excessive" for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute [see Hutto v. Davis (1982)]. But surely whether it is a "grave" offense merely to possess a significant quantity of drugs—thereby facilitating distribution, subjecting the holder to the temptation of distribution, and raising the possibility of theft by others who might distribute—depends entirely upon how odious and socially threatening one believes drug use to be. Would it be "grossly excessive" to provide life imprisonment for "mere possession" of a certain quantity of heavy weaponry? If not, then the only issue is whether the possible dissemination of drugs can be as "grave" as the possible dissemination of heavy weapons. Who are we to say no? The members of the Michigan Legislature, and not we, know the situation on the streets of Detroit.

The Difficulty of Comparing "Similarly Grave" Offenses

The second factor suggested in Solem fails for the same reason. One cannot compare the sentences imposed by the jurisdiction for "similarly grave" offenses if there is no objective standard of gravity. Judges will be comparing what they consider comparable. Or, to put the same point differently: When it happens that two offenses judicially determined to be "similarly grave" receive significantly dis similar penalties, what follows is not that the harsher penalty is unconstitutional, but merely that the legislature does not share the judges' view that the offenses are similarly grave. Moreover, even if "similarly grave" crimes could be identified, the penalties for them would not necessarily be comparable, since there are many other justifications for a difference. For example, since deterrent effect depends not only upon the amount of the penalty but upon its certainty, crimes that are less grave but significantly more difficult to detect may warrant substantially higher penalties. Grave crimes of the sort that will not be deterred by penalty may warrant substantially lower penalties, as may grave crimes of the sort that are normally committed once in a lifetime by otherwise law-abiding citizens who will not profit from rehabilitation. Whether these differences will occur, and to what extent, depends, of course, upon the weight the society accords to deterrence and rehabilitation, rather than retribution, as the objective of criminal punishment (which is an eminently legislative judgment). In fact, it becomes difficult even to speak intelligently of "proportionality," once deterrence and rehabilitation are given significant weight. Proportionality is inherently a retributive concept, and perfect proportionality is the talionic law. . . .

The Difficulty of Comparing State-to-State Sentences

As for the third factor mentioned by Solem—the character of the sentences imposed by other States for the same crime—it must be acknowledged that that can be applied with clarity and ease. The only difficulty is that it has no conceivable relevance to the Eighth Amendment. That a State is entitled to treat with stern disapproval an act that other States punish with the mildest of sanctions follows a fortiori from the undoubted fact that a State may criminalize an act that other States do not criminalize at all. Indeed, a State may criminalize an act that other States choose to reward—punishing, for example, the killing of endangered wild animals for which other States are offering a bounty. What greater disproportion could there be than that? "Absent a constitutionally imposed uniformity inimical to traditional notions of federalism, some State will always bear the distinction of treating particular offenders more severely than any other State" [Rummel]. Diversity not only in policy, but in the means of implementing policy, is the very raison d'être of our federal system. Though the different needs and concerns of other States may induce them to treat simple possession of 672 grams of cocaine as a relatively minor offense, . . . nothing in the Constitution requires Michigan to follow suit. The Eighth Amendment is not a ratchet, whereby a temporary consensus on leniency for a particular crime fixes a permanent constitutional maximum, disabling the States from giving effect to altered beliefs and responding to changed social conditions.

A Certain Degree of Proportionality Must Exist

Our 20th-century jurisprudence has not remained entirely in accord with the proposition that there is no proportionality requirement in the Eighth Amendment, but neither has it departed to the extent that Solem suggests. In Weems v.United States [1910] a government disbursing officer convicted of making false entries of small sums in his account book was sentenced by Philippine courts to 15 years of cadena temporal. That punishment, based upon the Spanish Penal Code called for incarceration at "hard and painful labor" with chains fastened to the wrists and ankles at all times. Several "accessor[ies]" were superadded, including permanent disqualification from holding any position of public trust, subjection to "[government] surveillance" for life, and "civil interdiction," which consisted of deprivation of "the rights of parental authority, guardianship of person or property, participation in the family council [etc.]."

Justice [Joseph] McKenna, writing for himself and three others, held that the imposition of cadena temporal was "Cruel and Unusual Punishment." (Justice [Edward D.] White, joined by Justice [Oliver W.] Holmes, dissented.) That holding, and some of the reasoning upon which it was based, was not at all out of accord with the traditional understanding of the provision we have described above. The punishment was both (1) severe and (2) unknown to Anglo-American tradition. As to the former, Justice McKenna wrote:

No circumstance of degradation is omitted. It may be that even the cruelty of pain is not omitted. He must bear a chain night and day. He is condemned to painful as well as hard labor. What painful labor may mean we have no exact measure. It must be something more than hard labor. It may be hard labor pressed to the point of pain.

As to the latter:

It has no fellow in American legislation. Let us remember that it has come to us from a government of a different form and genius from ours. It is cruel in its excess of imprisonment and that which accompanies and follows imprisonment. It is unusual in its character.

Other portions of the opinion, however, suggest that mere disproportionality, by itself, might make a punishment cruel and unusual:

Such penalties for such offenses amaze those who . . . believe that it is a precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to offense.

The inhibition [of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause] was directed, not only against punishments which inflict torture, "but against all punishments which by their excessive length or severity are greatly disproportioned to the offenses charged." [Weems] O'Neil v. Vermont (1892).

Disproportionate Must Equal "Barbaric" or "Excessive"

Since it contains language that will support either theory, our later opinions have used Weems, as the occasion required, to represent either the principle that "the Eighth Amendment bars not only those punishments that are 'barbaric' but also those that are 'excessive' in relation to the crime committed" [Coker v. Georgia (1977)] or the principle that only a "unique . . . punishmen[t]," a form of imprisonment different from the "more traditional forms . . . imposed under the Anglo-Saxon system," can violate the Eighth Amendment [Rummel]. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, however, it is hard to view Weems as announcing a constitutional requirement of proportionality, given that it did not produce a decision implementing such a requirement, either here or in the lower federal courts, for six decades. In Graham v. West Virginia [1912], for instance, we evaluated (and rejected) a claim that life imprisonment for a third offense of horse theft was "cruel and unusual." We made no mention of Weems, although the petitioner had relied upon that case.

Opinions in the Federal Courts of Appeals were equally devoid of evidence that this Court had announced a general proportionality principle. Some evaluated "cruel and unusual punishment" claims without reference to Weems. . . . Others continued to echo (in dictum) variants of the dictum in State v. Becker [1892] to the effect that courts will not interfere with punishment unless it is "manifestly cruel and unusual," and cited Weems for the proposition that sentences imposed within the limits of a statute "ordinarily will not be regarded as cruel and unusual." . . . Not until more than half a century after Weems did the Circuit Courts begin performing proportionality analysis. Even then, some continued to state that "[a] sentence within the statutory limits is not cruel and unusual punishment" [Page v. United States (1972)].

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The Eighth Amendment Does Not Guarantee Proportionate Sentencing

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