Solem v. Helm
463 U.S. 277 (1983)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983)

Solem v. Helm

No. 82-492

Argued March 29, 1983

Decided June 28, 1983

463 U.S. 277

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In 1979, respondent was convicted in a South Dakota state court of uttering a "no account" check for $100. Ordinarily the maximum punishment for that crime would have been five years' imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. Respondent, however, was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole under South Dakota's recidivist statute because of his six prior felony convictions -- three convictions for third-degree burglary and convictions for obtaining money under false pretenses, grand larceny, and third-offense driving while intoxicated. The South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the sentence. After respondent's request for commutation was denied, he sought habeas relief in Federal District Court, contending that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court denied relief, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

Held:

1. The Eighth Amendment's proscription of cruel and unusual punishments prohibits not only barbaric punishments, but also sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed. Pp. 463 U. S. 284-290.

(a) The principle of proportionality is deeply rooted in common law jurisprudence. It was expressed in Magna Carta, applied by the English courts for centuries, and repeated in the English Bill of Rights in language that was adopted in the Eighth Amendment. When the Framers of the Eighth Amendment adopted this language, they adopted the principle of proportionality that was implicit in it. Pp. 463 U. S. 284-286.

(b) The constitutional principle of proportionality has been recognized explicitly in this Court for almost a century. In several cases, the Court has applied the principle to invalidate criminal sentences. E.g., Weems v. United States,217 U. S. 349. And the Court often has recognized that the Eighth Amendment proscribes grossly disproportionate punishments, even when it has not been necessary to rely on the proscription. Pp. 463 U. S. 286-288.

(c) There is no basis for the State's assertion that the principle of proportionality does not apply to felony prison sentences. Neither the text of the Eighth Amendment nor the history behind it supports such an exception. Moreover, this Court's cases have recognized explicitly that

Page 463 U. S. 278

prison sentences are subject to proportionality analysis. No penalty is per se constitutional. Pp. 463 U. S. 288-290.

2. A court's proportionality analysis under the Eighth Amendment should be guided by objective criteria. Pp. 463 U. S. 290-295.

(a) Criteria that have been recognized in this Court's prior cases include (i) the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty; (ii) the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction, that is, whether more serious crimes are subject to the same penalty or to less serious penalties; and (iii) the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions. Pp. 463 U. S. 290-292.

(b) Courts are competent to judge the gravity of an offense, at least on a relative scale. Comparisons can be made in light of the harm caused or threatened to the victim or to society, and the culpability of the offender. There are generally accepted criteria for comparing the severity of different crimes, despite the difficulties courts face in attempting to draw distinctions between similar crimes. Pp. 463 U. S. 292-294.

(c) Courts are also able to compare different sentences. For sentences of imprisonment, the problem is one of line-drawing. Decisions of this kind, although troubling, are not unique to this area. The courts are constantly called upon to draw similar lines in a variety of contexts. Cf. Barker v. Wingo,407 U. S. 514; Baldwin v. New York,399 U. S. 66. Pp. 463 U. S. 294-295.

3. In light of the relevant objective criteria, respondent's sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole is significantly disproportionate to his crime, and is therefore prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 463 U. S. 295-303.

(a) Respondent's crime of uttering a "no account" check for $100 is viewed by society as among the less serious offenses. It involved neither violence nor threat of violence, and the face value of the check was not a large amount. Respondent's prior felonies were also relatively minor. All were nonviolent, and none was a crime against a person. Respondent's sentence was the most severe that the State could have imposed on any criminal for any crime. He has been treated in the same manner as, or more severely than, other criminals in South Dakota who have committed far more serious crimes. Nevada is the only other State that authorizes a life sentence without possibility of parole in the circumstances of this case, and there is no indication that any defendant such as respondent, whose prior offenses were so minor, has received the maximum penalty in Nevada. Pp. 463 U. S. 296-300.

(b) The possibility of commutation of a life sentence under South Dakota law is not sufficient to save respondent's otherwise unconstitutional sentence on the asserted theory that this possibility matches the possibility of parole. Assuming good behavior, parole is the normal

Page 463 U. S. 279

expectation in the vast majority of cases, and is governed by specified legal standards. Commutation is an ad hoc exercise of executive clemency that may occur at any time for any reason without reference to any standards. In South Dakota, no life sentence has been commuted in over eight years, while parole -- where authorized -- has been granted regularly during that period. Moreover, even if respondent's sentence were commuted, he merely would be eligible to be considered for parole. Rummel v. Estelle,445 U. S. 263, distinguished. Pp. 463 U. S. 300-303.

684 F.2d 582, affirmed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined,post, p. 463 U. S. 304.

JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue presented is whether the Eighth Amendment proscribes a life sentence without possibility of parole for a seventh nonviolent felony.

I

By 1975, the State of South Dakota had convicted respondent Jerry Helm of six nonviolent felonies. In 1964, 1966, and 1969, Helm was convicted of third-degree burglary. [Footnote 1] In 1972,

Page 463 U. S. 280

he was convicted of obtaining money under false pretenses. [Footnote 2] In 1973, he was convicted of grand larceny. [Footnote 3] And in 1975, he was convicted of third-offense driving while intoxicated. [Footnote 4] The record contains no details about the circumstances of any of these offenses, except that they were all nonviolent, none was a crime against a person, and alcohol was a contributing factor in each case.

Page 463 U. S. 281

In 1979, Helm was charged with uttering a "no account" check for $100. [Footnote 5] The only details we have of the crime are those given by Helm to the state trial court:

"'I was working in Sioux Falls, and got my check that day, was drinking, and I ended up here in Rapid City with more money than I had when I started. I knew I'd done something, I didn't know exactly what. If I would have known this, I would have picked the check up. I was drinking, and didn't remember, stopped several places.'"

State v. Helm, 287 N.W.2d 497, 501 (S.D.1980) (Henderson, J., dissenting) (quoting Helm). After offering this explanation, Helm pleaded guilty.

Ordinarily, the maximum punishment for uttering a "no account" check would have been five years' imprisonment in the state penitentiary and a $5,000 fine. See S.D.Comp.Laws Ann. § 22-6-1(6) (1967 ed., Supp.1978) (now codified at S.D.Codified Laws § 22-6-1(7) (Supp.1982)). As a result of his criminal record, however, Helm was subject to South Dakota's recidivist statute:

"When a defendant has been convicted of at least three prior convictions [sic] in addition to the principal felony, the sentence for the principal felony shall be enhanced to the sentence for a Class 1 felony."

S.D.Codified Laws § 22-7-8 (1979) (amended 1981). The maximum penalty for a "Class 1 felony" was life imprisonment in the state penitentiary and a $25,000 fine. [Footnote 6] S.D.

Page 463 U. S. 282

Comp.Laws Ann. § 22-6-1(2) (1967 ed., Supp.1978) (now codified at S.D.Codified Laws § 22-6-1(3) (Supp.1982)). Moreover, South Dakota law explicitly provides that parole is unavailable: "A person sentenced to life imprisonment is not eligible for parole by the board of pardons and paroles." S.D.Codified Laws § 24-15-4 (1979). The Governor [Footnote 7] is authorized to pardon prisoners, or to commute their sentences, S.D. Const., Art. IV, § 3, but no other relief from sentence is available even to a rehabilitated prisoner.

Immediately after accepting Helm's guilty plea, the South Dakota Circuit Court sentenced Helm to life imprisonment under § 22-7-8. The court explained:

"'I think you certainly earned this sentence, and certainly proven that you're an habitual criminal, and the record

Page 463 U. S. 283

would indicate that you're beyond rehabilitation and that the only prudent thing to do is to lock you up for the rest of your natural life, so you won't have further victims of your crimes, just be coming back before Courts. You'll have plenty of time to think this one over.'"

State v. Helm, supra, at 500 (Henderson, J., dissenting) (quoting South Dakota Circuit Court, Seventh Judicial Circuit, Pennington County (Parker, J.)). The South Dakota Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, affirmed the sentence despite Helm's argument that it violated the Eighth Amendment. State v. Helm, supra.

After Helm had served two years in the state penitentiary, he requested the Governor to commute his sentence to a fixed term of years. Such a commutation would have had the effect of making Helm eligible to be considered for parole when he had served three-fourths of his new sentence. See S.D.Codified Laws § 24-15-5(3) (1979). The Governor denied Helm's request in May, 1981. App. 26.

In November, 1981, Helm sought habeas relief in the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota. Helm argued, among other things, that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Although the District Court recognized that the sentence was harsh, it concluded that this Court's recent decision in Rummel v. Estelle,445 U. S. 263 (1980), was dispositive. It therefore denied the writ.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed. 684 F.2d 582 (1982). The Court of Appeals noted that Rummel v. Estelle was distinguishable. Helm's sentence of life without parole was qualitatively different from Rummel's life sentence with the prospect of parole, because South Dakota has rejected rehabilitation as a goal of

Page 463 U. S. 284

the criminal justice system. The Court of Appeals examined the nature of Helm's offenses, the nature of his sentence, and the sentence he could have received in other States for the same offense. It concluded, on the basis of this examination, that Helm's sentence was "grossly disproportionate to the nature of the offense." 684 F.2d at 587. It therefore directed the District Court to issue the writ unless the State resentenced Helm. Ibid. .

We granted certiorari to consider the Eighth Amendment question presented by this case. 459 U.S. 986 (1982). We now affirm.

II

The Eighth Amendment declares: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The final clause prohibits not only barbaric punishments, but also sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed.

A

The principle that a punishment should be proportionate to the crime is deeply rooted and frequently repeated in common law jurisprudence. In 1215, three chapters of Magna Carta were devoted to the rule that "amercements" [Footnote 8] may not be excessive. [Footnote 9] And the principle was repeated and extended in the First Statute of Westminster, 3 Edw. I, ch. 6

Page 463 U. S. 285

(1275). These were not hollow guarantees, for the royal courts relied on them to invalidate disproportionate punishments. See, e.g., Le Gras v. Bailiff of Bishop of Winchester, Y.B.Mich. 10 Edw. II, pl. 4 (C. P. 1316), reprinted in 52 Selden Society 3 (1934). When prison sentences became the normal criminal sanctions, the common law recognized that these, too, must be proportional. See, e.g., Hodges v. Humkin, 2 Bulst. 139, 140, 80 Eng.Rep. 1015, 1016 (K.B. 1615) (Croke, J.) ("imprisonment ought always to be according to the quality of the offence").

The English Bill of Rights repeated the principle of proportionality in language that was later adopted in the Eighth Amendment: "excessive Baile ought not to be required nor excessive Fines imposed nor cruell and unusuall Punishments inflicted." 1 Wm. & Mary, sess. 2, ch. 2 (1689). Although the precise scope of this provision is uncertain, it at least incorporated

"the longstanding principle of English law that the punishment . . . should not be, by reason of its excessive length or severity, greatly disproportionate to the offense charged."

R. Perry, Sources of Our Liberties 236 (1959); see 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *16-*19 (1769) (hereafter Blackstone); see also id. at *16-*17 (in condemning "punishments of unreasonable severity," uses "cruel" to mean severe or excessive). Indeed, barely three months after the Bill of Rights was adopted, the House of Lords declared that a

"fine of thirty thousand pounds, imposed by the court of King's Bench upon the earl of Devon was excessive and exorbitant, against magna charta, the common right of the subject, and the law of the land."

Earl of Devon's Case, 11 State Tr. 133, 136 (1689).

When the Framers of the Eighth Amendment adopted the language of the English Bill of Rights, [Footnote 10] they also adopted the

Page 463 U. S. 286

English principle of proportionality. Indeed, one of the consistent themes of the era was that Americans had all the rights of English subjects. See, e.g., 1 J.Continental Cong. 83 (W. Ford ed.1904) (Address to the People of Great Britain, Sept. 5, 1774) ("we claim all the benefits secured to the subject by the English constitution"); 1 American Archives 700 (4th series 1837) (Georgia Resolutions, Aug. 10, 1774) ("his Majesty's subjects in America . . . are entitled to the same rights, privileges, and immunities with their fellow subjects in Great Britain"). Thus our Bill of Rights was designed in part to ensure that these rights were preserved. Although the Framers may have intended the Eighth Amendment to go beyond the scope of its English counterpart, their use of the language of the English Bill of Rights is convincing proof that they intended to provide at least the same protection -- including the right to be free from excessive punishments.

B

The constitutional principle of proportionality has been recognized explicitly in this Court for almost a century. [Footnote 11] In the

Page 463 U. S. 287

leading case of Weems v. United States,217 U. S. 349 (1910), the defendant had been convicted of falsifying a public document and sentenced to 15 years of "cadena temporal," a form of imprisonment that included hard labor in chains and permanent civil disabilities. The Court noted that "it is a precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to offense," id. at 217 U. S. 367, and held that the sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. The Court endorsed the principle of proportionality as a constitutional standard, see, e.g., id. at 217 U. S. 372-373, and determined that the sentence before it was "cruel in its excess of imprisonment," id. at 217 U. S. 377, as well as in its shackles and restrictions.

The Court next applied the principle to invalidate a criminal sentence in Robinson v. California,370 U. S. 660 (1962). [Footnote 12] A 90-day sentence was found to be excessive for the crime of being "addicted to the use of narcotics." The Court explained that "imprisonment for ninety days is not, in the abstract, a punishment which is either cruel or unusual." Id. at 370 U. S. 667. Thus there was no question of an inherently barbaric punishment.

"But the question cannot be considered in the abstract. Even one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the 'crime' of having a common cold."

Ibid.

Page 463 U. S. 288

Most recently, the Court has applied the principle of proportionality to hold capital punishment excessive in certain circumstances. Enmund v. Florida,458 U. S. 782 (1982) (death penalty excessive for felony murder when defendant did not take life, attempt to take life, or intend that a life be taken or that lethal force be used); Coker v. Georgia,433 U. S. 584, 433 U. S. 592 (1977) (plurality opinion) ("sentence of death is grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment for the crime of rape"); id. at 433 U. S. 601 (POWELL, J., concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part) ("ordinarily death is disproportionate punishment for the crime of raping an adult woman"). And the Court has continued to recognize that the Eighth Amendment proscribes grossly disproportionate punishments, even when it has not been necessary to rely on the proscription. See, e.g., Hutto v. Finney,437 U. S. 678, 437 U. S. 685 (1978); Ingraham v. Wright,430 U. S. 651, 430 U. S. 667 (1977); Gregg v. Georgia,428 U. S. 153, 428 U. S. 171-172 (1976) (opinion of Stewart, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ.); cf. Hutto v. Davis,454 U. S. 370, 454 U. S. 374, and n. 3 (1982) (per curiam) (recognizing that some prison sentences may be constitutionally disproportionate); Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. at 445 U. S. 274, n. 11 (same). [Footnote 13]

C

There is no basis for the State's assertion that the general principle of proportionality does not apply to felony prison sentences. [Footnote 14] The constitutional language itself suggests no

Page 463 U. S. 289

exception for imprisonment. We have recognized that the Eighth Amendment imposes "parallel limitations" on bail, fines, and other punishments, Ingraham v. Wright, supra, at 430 U. S. 664, and the text is explicit that bail and fines may not be excessive. It would be anomalous indeed if the lesser punishment of a fine and the greater punishment of death were both subject to proportionality analysis, but the intermediate punishment of imprisonment were not. There is also no historical support for such an exception. The common law principle incorporated into the Eighth Amendment clearly applied to prison terms. See Hodges v. Humkin, 2 Bulst. 139, 80 Eng.Rep. 1015 (K.B. 1615). And our prior cases have recognized explicitly that prison sentences are subject to proportionality analysis. See, e.g., Weems, supra, at 217 U. S. 377; cf. Hutto v. Finney, supra, at 437 U. S. 685 ("Confinement in a prison . . . is a form of punishment subject to scrutiny under Eighth Amendment standards").

When we have applied the proportionality principle in capital cases, we have drawn no distinction with cases of imprisonment. See Gregg v. Georgia, supra, at 428 U. S. 176 (opinion of Stewart, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ.). It is true that the "penalty of death differs from all other forms of criminal punishment, not in degree but in kind." Furman v. Georgia,408 U. S. 238, 408 U. S. 306 (1972) (Stewart, J., concurring). As a result, "our decisions [in] capital cases are of limited assistance in deciding the constitutionality of the punishment" in a noncapital case. Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. at 445 U. S. 272. We agree, therefore, that,

"[o]utside the context of capital punishment, successful challenges to the proportionality of particular

Page 463 U. S. 290

sentences [will be] exceedingly rare. [Footnote 15]"

Ibid. (emphasis added); see Hutto v. Davis, supra, at 454 U. S. 374. This does not mean, however, that proportionality analysis is entirely inapplicable in noncapital cases.

In sum, we hold as a matter of principle that a criminal sentence must be proportionate to the crime for which the defendant has been convicted. Reviewing courts, of course, should grant substantial deference to the broad authority that legislatures necessarily possess in determining the types and limits of punishments for crimes, as well as to the discretion that trial courts possess in sentencing convicted criminals. [Footnote 16] But no penalty is per se constitutional. As the Court noted in Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. at 370 U. S. 667, a single day in prison may be unconstitutional in some circumstances.

III

A

When sentences are reviewed under the Eighth Amendment, courts should be guided by objective factors that our cases have recognized. [Footnote 17] First, we look to the gravity of the

Page 463 U. S. 291

offense and the harshness of the penalty. In Enmund, for example, the Court examined the circumstances of the defendant's crime in great detail. 458 U.S. at 458 U. S. 797-801. In Coker, the Court considered the seriousness of the crime of rape, and compared it to other crimes, such as murder. 433 U.S. at 433 U. S. 597-598 (plurality opinion); id. at 433 U. S. 603 (POWELL, J., concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part). In Robinson, the emphasis was placed on the nature of the "crime." 370 U.S. at 370 U. S. 666-667. And in Weems, the Court's opinion commented in two separate places on the pettiness of the offense. 217 U.S. at 217 U. S. 363 and 217 U. S. 365. Of course, a court must consider the severity of the penalty in deciding whether it is disproportionate. See, e.g., Coker, 433 U.S. at 433 U. S. 598 (plurality opinion); Weems, 217 U.S. at 217 U. S. 366-367.

Second, it may be helpful to compare the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction. If more serious crimes are subject to the same penalty, or to less serious penalties, that is some indication that the punishment at issue may be excessive. Thus, in Enmund, the Court noted that all of the other felony murderers on death row in Florida were more culpable than the petitioner there. 458 U.S. at 458 U. S. 795-796. The Weems Court identified an impressive list of more serious crimes that were subject to less serious penalties. 217 U.S. at 217 U. S. 380-381.

Third, courts may find it useful to compare the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions.

Page 463 U. S. 292

In Enmund, the Court conducted an extensive review of capital punishment statutes and determined that "only about a third of American jurisdictions would ever permit a defendant [such as Enmund] to be sentenced to die." 458 U.S. at 458 U. S. 792. Even in those jurisdictions, however, the death penalty was almost never imposed under similar circumstances. Id. at 458 U. S. 794-796. The Court's review of foreign law also supported its conclusion. Id. at 458 U. S. 796-797, n. 22. The analysis in Coker was essentially the same. 433 U.S. at 433 U. S. 593-597. And in Weems, the Court relied on the fact that, under federal law, a similar crime was punishable by only two years' imprisonment and a fine. 217 U.S. at 217 U. S. 380. Cf. Trop v. Dulles,356 U. S. 86, 356 U. S. 102-103 (1958) (plurality opinion).

In sum, a court's proportionality analysis under the Eighth Amendment should be guided by objective criteria, including (i) the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty; (ii) the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction; and (iii) the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions.

B

Application of these factors assumes that courts are competent to judge the gravity of an offense, at least on a relative scale. In a broad sense, this assumption is justified, and courts traditionally have made these judgments -- just as legislatures must make them in the first instance. Comparisons can be made in light of the harm caused or threatened to the victim or society, and the culpability of the offender. Thus, in Enmund, the Court determined that the petitioner's conduct was not as serious as his accomplices' conduct. Indeed, there are widely shared views as to the relative seriousness of crimes. See Rossi, Waite, Bose, & Berk, The Seriousness of Crimes: Normative Structure and Individual Differences, 39 Am.Sociological Rev. 224, 237 (1974) (hereafter Rossi et al.). For example, as the criminal laws make clear, nonviolent crimes are less serious than crimes marked by violence

Page 463 U. S. 293

or the threat of violence. Cf. Tr. of Oral Arg. 16 (the State recognizes that the criminal law is more protective of people than property).

There are other accepted principles that courts may apply in measuring the harm caused or threatened to the victim or society. The absolute magnitude of the crime may be relevant. Stealing a million dollars is viewed as more serious than stealing a hundred dollars -- a point recognized in statutes distinguishing petty theft from grand theft. See, e.g., S.D.Codified Laws § 22-30A-17 (Supp.1982). Few would dispute that a lesser included offense should not be punished more severely than the greater offense. Thus, a court is justified in viewing assault with intent to murder as more serious than simple assault. See Roberts v. Collin, 544 F.2d 168, 169-170 (CA4 1976) (per curiam), cert. denied, 430 U.S. 973 (1977). Cf. Dembowski v. State, 251 Ind. 250, 252, 240 N.E.2d 815, 817 (1968) (armed robbery more serious than robbery); Cannon v. Gladden, 203 Ore. 629, 632, 281 P.2d 233, 235 (1955) (rape more serious than assault with intent to commit rape). It also is generally recognized that attempts are less serious than completed crimes. See, e.g., S.D.Codified Laws § 22-4-1 (1979); 4 Blackstone *15. Similarly, an accessory after the fact should not be subject to a higher penalty than the principal. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 3.

Turning to the culpability of the offender, there are again clear distinctions that courts may recognize and apply. In Enmund, the Court looked at the petitioner's lack of intent to kill in determining that he was less culpable than his accomplices. 458 U.S. at 458 U. S. 798. Most would agree that negligent conduct is less serious than intentional conduct. South Dakota, for example, ranks criminal acts in ascending order of seriousness as follows: negligent acts, reckless acts, knowing acts, intentional acts, and malicious acts. S.D.Codified Laws § 22-1-2(1)(f) (Supp.1982). A court, of course, is entitled to look at a defendant's motive in committing a crime. Thus, a murder may be viewed as more serious when committed

Page 463 U. S. 294

pursuant to a contract. See, e.g., Mass.Gen.Laws Ann., ch. 279, § 69(a)(5) (West Supp.1982-1983); cf. 4 Blackstone *15; In re Foss, 10 Cal.3d 910, 519 P.2d 1073 (1974).

This list is by no means exhaustive. It simply illustrates that there are generally accepted criteria for comparing the severity of different crimes on a broad scale, despite the difficulties courts face in attempting to draw distinctions between similar crimes.

C

Application of the factors that we identify also assumes that courts are able to compare different sentences. This assumption, too, is justified. The easiest comparison, of course, is between capital punishment and noncapital punishments, for the death penalty is different from other punishments in kind rather than degree. [Footnote 18] For sentences of imprisonment, the problem is not so much one of ordering, but one of line-drawing. It is clear that a 25-year sentence generally is more severe than a 15-year sentence, [Footnote 19] but in most cases it would be difficult to decide that the former violates the Eighth Amendment while the latter does not. Decisions of this kind, although troubling, are not unique to this area. The courts are constantly called upon to draw similar lines in a variety of contexts.

The Sixth Amendment offers two good examples. A State is constitutionally required to provide an accused with a speedy trial, Klopfer v. North Carolina,386 U. S. 213 (1967), but the delay that is permissible must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

"[A]ny inquiry into a speedy trial claim necessitates a functional analysis of the right in the particular context of the case. . . . "

Barker v. Wingo,407 U. S. 514, 407 U. S. 522 (1972) (unanimous opinion). In Barker, we identified

Page 463 U. S. 295

some of the objective factors that courts should consider in determining whether a particular delay was excessive. Id. at 407 U. S. 530. None of these factors is

"either a necessary or sufficient condition to the finding of a deprivation of the right of speedy trial. Rather, they are related factors and must be considered together with such other circumstances as may be relevant."

Id. at 407 U. S. 533. Thus the type of inquiry that a court should conduct to determine if a given sentence is constitutionally disproportionate is similar to the type of inquiry required by the Speedy Trial Clause.

The right to a jury trial is another example. Baldwin v. New York,399 U. S. 66 (1970), in particular, illustrates the line-drawing function of the judiciary, and offers guidance on the method by which some lines may be drawn. There the Court determined that a defendant has a right to a jury trial "where imprisonment for more than six months is authorized." Id. at 399 U. S. 69 (plurality opinion). In choosing the 6-month standard, the plurality relied almost exclusively on the fact that only New York City denied the right to a jury trial for an offense punishable by more than six months. As JUSTICE WHITE explained:

"This near-uniform judgment of the Nation furnishes us with the only objective criterion by which a line could ever be drawn -- on the basis of the possible penalty alone -- between offenses that are and that are not regarded as 'serious' for purposes of trial by jury."

Id. at 399 U. S. 72-73. In short, Baldwin clearly demonstrates that a court properly may distinguish one sentence of imprisonment from another. It also supports our holding that courts properly may look to the practices in other jurisdictions in deciding where lines between sentences should be drawn.

IV

It remains to apply the analytical framework established by our prior decisions to the case before us. We first consider

Page 463 U. S. 296

the relevant criteria, viewing Helm's sentence as life imprisonment without possibility of parole. We then consider the State's argument that the possibility of commutation is sufficient to save an otherwise unconstitutional sentence.

A

Helm's crime was "one of the most passive felonies a person could commit." State v. Helm, 287 N.W.2d at 501 (Henderson, J., dissenting). It involved neither violence nor threat of violence to any person. The $100 face value of Helm's "no account" check was not trivial, but neither was it a large amount. One hundred dollars was less than half the amount South Dakota required for a felonious theft. [Footnote 20] It is easy to see why such a crime is viewed by society as among the less serious offenses. See Rossi et al. at 229.

Helm, of course, was not charged simply with uttering a "no account" check, but also with being a habitual offender. [Footnote 21] And a State is justified in punishing a recidivist more severely than it punishes a first offender. Helm's status, however, cannot be considered in the abstract. His prior offenses, although classified as felonies, were all relatively

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