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NCJ Number: 70312 Find in a Library
Title: Disproportionality in Sentences of Imprisonment
Journal: Columbia Law Review  Volume:79  Issue:6  Dated:(Octobe 1979)  Pages:1119-1167
Author(s): B W Gilchrist
Date Published: 1979
Page Count: 49
Format: Article
Language: English
Country: United States of America
Annotation: The origin and application of the prohibition of disproportionate punishment through sentencing is discussed; comparative techniques used by the courts in determining deserved punishment are addressed.
Abstract: The eighth amendment limits the power of Federal and State governments to punish offenders by prohibiting the imposition of 'cruel and unusual punishments.' In Supreme Court decisions, such as Robinson v. California (1962) and Coker v. Georgia (1977), the Court established that a sentence may be cruel and unusual not only because it is barbaric and inhumane in its method, but also because it is excessive in relation to the offense committed or because it is disproportionate to the gravity of the offense. The concept that the severity of punishment should be proportionate to the gravity of the offense is a feature of the retributive or moral deserts theory of punishment. In judging whether a statutorily authorized sentence is unconstitutionally disproportionate to an offense, some courts have adopted a three-part comparative test that considers the gravity of the offense, how the challenged sentence compares with the penalties prescribed for other crimes in the same jurisdiction, and how the penalty compares with the sentences imposed for the same offense in other jurisdictions. A few courts also ask what penological purposes the legislature sought to achieve by authorizing a challenged punishment. Challenges to sentences on grounds of disproportionality fall into two categories: those where the offender asserts that the State may never impose the challenged penalty and those in which the only issue is the proportionality of the specific sentence imposed on the individual offender. The prohibition on disproportionate punishment is deeply rooted in the legal tradition, but it has been applied only sporadically by the courts. In the absence of a firm basis for holding that a sentence is invalid under the standards of decency, courts rightly defer to the legislative judgment in sentence authorization. Footnotes are included in the article.
Index Term(s): Cruel and unusual punishment; Just deserts theory; Sentencing disparity; Sentencing/Sanctions
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