Whether a defendant - the person convicted of a crime - broke a state or federal law, when it comes determining his punishment or sentence, an overriding concern is that it be proportional to his crime. In other words, the punishment should "fit the crime." The idea is easy to understand. We don't want to send people to prison for minor traffic offenses. Putting that idea into action, however, isn't always so simple.

"Proportionality" Laws?

Where in the law does it say that sentences have to be proportional? Sometimes, the answer is,  "Nowhere." Other times, it's clearly spelled out. It all depends on if you're dealing with state or federal law, and whether the death penalty might apply.

Capital Cases

When it comes to capital punishment, proportionality under the Eight Amendment to the US Constitution means that any state or federal law that allows for the death penalty must specify the exact crimes for which the death penalty may be imposed. In addition, the crimes specified have to be serious enough to justify the punishment. As a practical matter, death penalty sentences are challenged as disproportional not so much because of how the law is written, but how it applies to the facts and circumstances of a particular case.

Aggravating factors help to make sure that a death penalty is imposed in the proper cases only. They're facts or circumstances that make the defendant's crime more distasteful or horrific. Most death penalty laws require one or more aggravating factors to be present before the death penalty - rather than life imprisonment - may be imposed. Use of a weapon during the crime and committing the crime in return for money are good examples of aggravating factors. So, a death penalty defendant may argue that his sentence is disproportionate because there were no aggravating factors.

Non-Capital Cases

In non-capital cases - cases where a defendant, if convicted, doesn't face the death penalty - the rules on proportionality aren't always clear. Under the Eighth Amendment, federal and state criminal laws can't allow excessive bail or fines, or "cruel and unusual punishment." The amendment doesn't expressly bar "disproportionate sentences." However, the US Supreme Court has indicated that the Eighth Amendment bars sentences that are "grossly disproportionate."

Unlike the US Constitution, some state constitutions make it clear by stating, for example, "Cruel and unusual punishments shall not be imposed, but all penalties shall be proportioned to the crimes committed."

Is It "Disproportionate?"

What's a "grossly disproportionate" or an unconstitutionally disproportionate sentence in a non-capital case? There's no bright-line definition. It depends on the facts and circumstances of each case. As a general rule, though, you should know that it's very rare to have a sentence thrown out or reduced on the ground that it's not proportionate to the crime.

When considering if a sentence is disproportionate, courts will look at several factors, such as:

  • The gravity or seriousness of the crime, including the harm caused or threatened to the victim or the public, and the level of defendant's involvement in the crime - was he the main actor, or did he only give minor help to others who committed the crime?
  • The defendant's intent and motive in committing the crime
  • The sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction and the sentences imposed for the same crimes in other jurisdictions

A sentence usually will be considered proportionate if it falls within the range given in the statute that applies to your case, or within range given in the US Sentencing Guidelines used by the federal courts.

Some examples of proportionate and disproportionate sentences include:

  • A life sentence imposed for a defendant's conviction for possession of a large amount of cocaine was proportionate, even though it was his first and only conviction
  • A sentence of 25 years to life was proportionate for a defendant who was convicted of grand theft (he shoplifted $1,200 worth of merchandise) where he had two prior felony convictions for robbery and burglary
  • Defendant's sentence of 25 years to life on his conviction for stealing $200 worth of video tapes was not disproportionate in light of his prior felony convictions for burglary
  • A sentence of 28 years to life was grossly disproportionate on defendant's conviction for failing to update his annual sex offender registration within five days of his birthday, even though the defendant had more than two prior felony convictions

As you can see, many claims that a sentence is disproportionate aren't successful. That doesn't mean you should simply give up, though. If you think your sentence doesn't fit your crime, talk to an experienced criminal law attorney for help making the strongest possible case.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How fast do I have to file a claim that my sentence isn't proportional to my crime? What kind of proof do I need?
  • Is a five-year prison sentence on a third conviction for possession of less than 3 grams of marijuana disproportionate?
  • If a court finds that a death penalty statute isn't clearly written and not proportional, does that mean anyone who was sentenced to death before that ruling will be taken off death row?

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