Volume 85, Number 6

December 2010

State Innovations in Noncapital Proportionality Doctrine

Julia Fong Sheketoff

The Supreme Court has recognized a proportionality principle under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.” The proportionality principle governs both capital and noncapital sentences, yet the Court does not apply the principle equally. In the capital context, the Court has created a robust methodology for determining when the death penalty is disproportionate and has forbidden its use in a number of contexts. In contrast, the Court has virtually renounced proportionality review in the noncapital context. This Note focuses on three points of difference between the capital and noncapital contexts that the Court has identified as justifying its fractured proportionality doctrines: the inherent subjectivity in distinguishing among noncapital sentences; the resultant inadministrability of engaging in robust noncapital proportionality review; and the infringement upon penological decisions made by state legislatures that searching noncapital review would require. It then responds to the Court’s articulated concerns by surveying the noncapital proportionality jurisprudence of the fifty states, which illustrates that there are principled, administrable, and legislatively deferential ways to police noncapital sentences. This Note suggests that the Court adopt a modified strand of states’ jurisprudence in order to craft a more rigorous noncapital proportionality doctrine at the federal level.