Rethinking Proportionality Under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause

80 Pages Posted: 20 Aug 2010 Last revised: 4 Feb 2014

John F. Stinneford

University of Florida - Levin College of Law

Date Written: February 18, 2011

Abstract

Although a century has passed since the Supreme Court started reviewing criminal punishments for excessiveness under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, this area of doctrine remains highly problematic. The Court has never answered the claim that proportionality review is illegitimate in light of the Eighth Amendment’s original meaning. The Court has also adopted an ever-shifting definition of excessiveness, making the very concept of proportionality incoherent. Finally, the Court’s method of measuring proportionality is unreliable and self contradictory. As a result, a controlling plurality of the Court has insisted that proportionality review be limited to a narrow class of cases. This area of doctrine needs rethinking.

This Article is the first to establish that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause was originally meant to prohibit excessive punishments as well as barbaric ones, and that proportionality review is therefore unquestionably legitimate. This Article also demonstrates that proportionality is a retributive concept, not a utilitarian one. Punishments are unconstitutionally excessive if they are harsher than the defendant deserves as a retributive matter. Finally, this Article shows that proportionality should be measured primarily in relation to prior punishment practice. The proposed approach will align the Court’s proportionality jurisprudence more closely with the core purpose of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause and will enable the Court to expand proportionality review to a much larger class of cases.

Keywords: Eighth Amendment, Cruel and Unusual Punishments, Constitution, Criminal Sentencing, Original Meaning

Suggested Citation

Stinneford, John F., Rethinking Proportionality Under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause (February 18, 2011). Virginia Law Review, Vol. 97, No. 4, 2011; University of Florida Levin College of Law Research Paper No. 2010-23. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1660642

John F. Stinneford (Contact Author)

University of Florida - Levin College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 117625
Gainesville, FL 32611-7625
United States

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