The Supreme Court yesterday struck down a prison sentence of "life without parole" imposed by a South Dakota judge on a nonviolent "habitual offender" convicted of writing a bad check for $100.
In a 5-to-4 ruling that broke significant new constitutional ground, the court said the sentence was "grossly disproportionate" to the crime and violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The court has rarely tampered with severity of prison sentences by state courts. Its ruling is particularly important because it comes as many states are considering or have adopted "habitual offender" laws allowing long prison terms for repeat offenders.
The decision, written by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., does not bar such laws but may require that they be flexible and include severe sentences only for very violent crimes. Powell issued guidelines for judges on evaluating sentences, weighing the gravity of a crime, sentences imposed for similar crimes and the motive and context of a crime.
"We hold as a matter of principle that a criminal sentence must be proportionate to the crime," the court said.
In an unusually bitter dissent, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger called the ruling "judicial usurpation with a vengeance" that will lead to constant second-guessing by federal judges of state sentencing decisions.
"What the court means is that a sentence is unconstitutional if it is more severe than five justices think appropriate," he said. The dissent was joined by Justices Byron R. White, William H. Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor.
The ruling, upholding the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, stems from a South Dakota law permitting life without parole after four felony convictions.
Jerry Helm, subject of yesterday's case, Solem vs. Helm, had been convicted three times for burglary, once for obtaining money under false pretenses, once for grand larceny and once for driving while intoxicated.
He then wrote the bad check in 1979. "You'll have plenty of time to think this one over," the state court judge told him. " . . . The only prudent thing to do is lock you up for the rest of your natural life . . . ."
Powell said Helm had "received the penultimate sentence for relatively minor criminal conduct," more severe than that imposed on many rapists and murderers and more severe, relative to the crimes, than any recent sentence in any jurisdiction.
Powell acknowledged that the court has maintained a hands-off attitude toward sentencing, except for death-penalty cases. Courts should continue to defer to most prison sentences in states, he said.
But the principle of proportionality, he said, is "deeply rooted" in American and English law. "No penalty is per se constitutional," he said. "A single day in prison may be unconstitutional in some circumstances."
The decision contrasted with a controversial 1980 Supreme Court ruling in Rummel vs. Estelle that upheld a life term, with parole eligibility, for a Texan convicted of nonviolent crimes under a habitual-offender law. Powell said the difference is that Rummel, subsequently released for other reasons, could have been paroled in 12 years.
Burger accused the court of tacitly overruling that decision. "Will the court now recall Rummel's case so five justices will not be parties to 'disproportionate' criminal justice?" he asked in his dissent.
" . . . Today, it holds that a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is excessive punishment for a seventh allegedly 'nonviolent' felony. How about the eighth 'nonviolent' felony? The ninth? The 12th?"