Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983)

The Eighth Amendment prohibits, among other things, ‘‘cruel and unusual punishments.’’ Since 1980, the Supreme Court has decided six cases in which the duration of a prison sentence was challenged as being grossly disproportionate to the crime for which the defendant was convicted. In only one of those cases—Solem v. Helm—has the Court ruled in favor of the defendant.

In Solem, the defendant received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole under South Dakota’s ‘‘four-strikes’’ recidivist statute for passing a ‘‘no account’’ check in the amount of $100. By itself, Helm’s triggering offense—a felony under South Dakota law—would have been punishable by up to five years in prison. Under South Dakota’s recidivist statute, however, three of Helm’s seven prior convictions ‘‘in addition to the principal felony’’ rendered him eligible for a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

In striking down Helm’s sentence, the Court held ‘‘as a matter of principle that a criminal sentence must be proportionate to the crime for which the defendant has been convicted.’’ The Court specified that the proportionality standard in recidivist sentence cases should be guided by a three-step process. First, courts must compare ‘‘the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty,’’ with the gravity of the offense being evaluated ‘‘in light of the harm caused or threatened to the victim or society, and the culpability of the offender.’’ Second, courts should ‘‘compare the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction’’ to see whether ‘‘more serious crimes are subject to the same penalty, or to less serious penalties.’’ Finally, the courts should ‘‘compare the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions.’’

The Court found that Helm’s conviction and prior offenses were all minor and nonviolent, that his sentence was the most severe authorized by South Dakota at the time, that Helm had been punished as or more severely than many South Dakota criminals whose crimes were far more serious, and that he had been punished more severely than he would have been in any other state.

Although Solem technically remains good law, it has undergone a handful of revisions and has been severely limited by subsequent Supreme Court recidivist sentence cases—Harmelin v. Michigan, Ewing v. California, and Lockyer v. Andrade. These cases sit uneasily with each other, and there remains substantial uncertainty over whether the Court will ever strike down another recidivist sentence. Nonetheless, a handful of state and lower federal courts have relied recently on Solem—notwithstanding Harmelin, Ewing, and Andrade—to do so.

JEAN-CLAUDE ANDRE´

References and Further Reading

  • Frase, Richard S., Excessive Prison Sentences, Punishment Goals, and the Eighth Amendment: ‘Proportionality’ Relative to What? Minnesota Law Review 89 (February 2005): 3: 571–651.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003)
  • Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991)
  • Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003)

See also Cruel and Unusual Punishment Generally; Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991); Three Strikes/Proportionality; Theories of Punishment

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