Disproportionate Imprisonment

Historically, the Eighth Amendment has precluded sentencing a criminal defendant to a term of imprisonment that is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime it purports to punish. In Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277, 290, 77 L. Ed. 2d 637, 103 S. Ct. 3001 (1983), the Supreme Court invalidated the discretionary imposition of life without parole under a state sentencing enhancement statute, where Solem's recidivist crime of uttering a no account check was predicated on seven equally non-violent, relatively minor felonies. In so doing, the Court articulated three factors a reviewing court should consider when undertaking a proportionality analysis: 1) the gravity of the offense and harshness of the penalty imposed; 2) the sentences imposed on other criminals within the same jurisdiction; and 3) the sentences imposed for committing the same crime in other jurisdictions. Id. at 290-92. These considerations were cited with approval by our supreme court in State v. Kiser, 288 S.C. 441, 443, 343 S.E.2d 292, 293 (1986). However, in the plurality opinion of Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 115 L. Ed. 2d 836, 111 S. Ct. 2680 (1991), a deeply divided Supreme Court revisited the issue. Although Harmelin questioned the continued viability of any proportionality doctrine in the Eighth Amendment context, a majority of plurality members ultimately affirmed "the narrow proportionality principle that has existed in our Eighth Amendment jurisprudence for 80 years." Id. at 996 (Kennedy, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment). Nonetheless, the plurality nature of Harmelin left the status of Eighth Amendment proportionality review somewhat unsettled.