Is a Life Without Parole a Cruel and Unusual Punishment ?
In Solem v. Helm, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits disproportionate prison sentences. 463 U.S. 277, 288-90, 103 S. Ct. 3001, 3008-10, 77 L. Ed. 2d 637 (1983).
The Court identified three criteria that should be used to evaluate the proportionality of a particular sentence:
(1) the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty;
(2) the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction;
(3) the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions. Solem, 463 U.S. at 292, 103 S. Ct. at 3011.
The Court revisited the issue in Harmelin v. Michigan, but the majority could not come to a consensus on the issue of proportionality. 501 U.S. 957, 111 S. Ct. 2680, 115 L. Ed. 2d 836 (1991).
Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, delivered the Court's opinion that a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Harmelin, 501 U.S. at 994-96, 111 S. Ct. at 2701-02.
Justices Kennedy, O'Connor and Souter concurred with Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Rehnquist in that respect. 501 U.S. at 965, 111 S. Ct. at 2686.
Justices Kennedy, O'Connor, and Souter believe Solem is correct to the extent that the Eighth Amendment prohibits grossly disproportionate sentences. 501 U.S. at 1001, 111 S. Ct. at 2705 (Kennedy, J., concurring).
The Fifth Circuit applied a "head-count analysis" to Harmelin and concluded: "disproportionality survives; Solem does not." McGruder v. Puckett, 954 F.2d 313, 316 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 849, 121 L. Ed. 2d 98, 113 S. Ct. 146 (1992).