Proportionality of Punishment
In the United States, we have gone back and forth between believing in utilitarian punishment and being a retributivist society. While we are currently a retributivist society, for the most part, there are some things that never change about punishment. One of the biggest things that must always be observed is the principle of proportionality of punishment.
The mandate of proportionality for any crime stems, in great part, from the Eight Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. This prohibition requires that any individual convicted of a crime not be sentenced to punishment that would be termed “cruel” by the standards of the day or “unusual.” The majority of things that are struck down are struck down under the “cruel” portion of the statute.
Punishment should be proportional to the crime that was committed by the individual. Justice White, in Coker v. Georgia (1977), laid out the rules for determining proportionality of a crime. A punishment can be deemed “excessive” and therefore unconstitutional if it “1) makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment and hence is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering and 2) is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime.”
The problem of proportionality comes up frequently in cases involving challenges to three strike laws. In many cases, a law is deemed disproportionate if it imposes life imprisonment without the opportunity for parole for an offense that is not necessarily that serious.