The first category is a case-by-case approach, where the court considers all the circumstances of the case to determine whether the sentence is excessive. This begins with a “threshold comparison” of the gravity of the offence and the harshness of the penalty. If this leads to an inference of gross disproportionality, the court compares the sentence in question with sentences for the same crime in the same jurisdiction and other jurisdictions. If that analysis confirms the initial inference of gross disproportionality, a violation of the Eighth Amendment is established.
In the second category of cases, the Supreme Court has invoked proportionality to adopt “categorical rules” prohibiting a particular punishment from being applied to certain crimes or certain classes of offenders.
135. Under the first category, the Supreme Court has struck down as grossly disproportionate a sentence of life imprisonment without parole imposed on a defendant with previous convictions for passing a worthless cheque (Solem v. Helm 463 US 277 (1983)). It has upheld the following sentences: life with the possibility of parole for obtaining money by false pretences (Rummel v. Estelle 445 US 263 (1980)); life imprisonment without parole for possessing a large quantity of cocaine (Harmelin v. Michigan 501 US 957 (1991)); twenty-five years to life for theft under a “three strikes” recidivist sentencing law (Ewing v. California 538 US 11 (2003)); forty years’ imprisonment for distributing marijuana (Hutto v. Davis 454 US 370 (1982)).
136. Examples of cases considered under the second category include Coker v. Georgia 433 US 584 (1977) (prohibiting capital punishment for rape) and Roper v. Simmons 543 US 551 (2005) (prohibiting capital punishment for juveniles under eighteen). In Graham, cited above, the court held that the Eighth Amendment also prohibited the imposition of life imprisonment without parole on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide. The court found that life imprisonment without parole was an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile and that the remote possibility of pardon or other executive clemency did not mitigate the harshness of the sentence. Although a State was not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a non-homicide crime, it had to provide some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. The court also held that a sentence lacking in legitimate penological justification (such as retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation) was, by its nature, disproportionate. Such purposes could justify life without parole in other contexts, but not life without parole for juvenile non-homicide offenders.
- Proportionality of sentencing