It is extremely difficult for a defendant to successfully challenge the length of a sentence under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. To succeed in such a challenge, a defendant must establish that his sentence is grossly disproportionate to the offense. However, the Court has never offered consistent, workable guidelines to determine whether a sentence is grossly disproportionate.
This Article demonstrates that gross disproportionality review is simply a rational-basis test, one which is virtually identical to the Fourteenth Amendment rational-basis test. Under the Fourteenth Amendment rational-basis test, a law is upheld so long as it furthers a conceivable government interest. Case law illustrates that a very similar test is applied under Eighth Amendment challenges to the length of prison sentences. Specifically, a sentence for a term of years is upheld so long as the sentence furthers a conceivable penological purpose. Conversely, a sentence violates the Eighth Amendment only if the court finds the sentence furthers no conceivable penological theory - i.e. the sentence is arbitrary or irrational.
Unfortunately, gross disproportionality review has never been articulated in such a precise manner, especially with respect to rational-basis language traditionally applied to the Fourteenth Amendment. However, this Article shows that the standards set by the Supreme Court, and the lower courts’ application of those standards, creates a rational-basis test, although courts maintain they are applying “gross disproportionality review.”
The purpose of this Article is only to identify how a court actually reviews a sentence in the face of an Eighth Amendment challenge, not to promote or oppose the principles applied. Only upon recognition that gross disproportionality review is merely a safeguard against arbitrariness can courts and scholars address whether such a standard does, in fact, properly align itself with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
- Eighth Amendment,
- Cruel and Unusual Punishment,
- Appellate Review of Sentencing,
- Excessive Sentencing,
- Grossly Disproportionate Sentence,
- Ewing v. California,
- Rummel v. Estelle,
- Harmelin v. Michigan,
- Solem v. Helm
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/christopher_declue/4/