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What is excessive punishment under the constitution?

In re Palmer (2021) 10 Cal.5th 959

Summary: The California Supreme Court  held that prisoners may challenge their continued incarceration as constitutionally excessive when the Board repeatedly denies parole. The Court had granted review in the case of Palmer who in 1988, was 17 years old when he pleaded guilty to kidnapping for robbery and sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, consecutive to a two-year term for use of a firearm.

Palmer was eligible for parole in 1995 but was repeatedly denied parole by the Board. Following his 10th denial, Palmer filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus. Palmer alleged that the 30 years he had already served on a life sentence for an aggravated kidnapping committed when he was a juvenile was constitutionally excessive. Before the Court of Appeal could adjudicate the habeas petition, the Board found him suitable for parole and ordered him released. The California Supreme Court agree with Court of Appeal that habeas corpus relief is available to inmates whose continued incarceration has become constitutionally excessive, but who have been denied release by the Board.

Reviewing a claim that a sentence is constitutionally excessive

A court uses three analytical techniques to aid its deferential review of claim that sentence is constitutionally excessive:

(1) an examination of the nature of the offense and the offender, with particular attention to the degree of danger both pose to society;(2) a comparison of the punishment with the punishment state imposes for more serious offenses; and
(3) a comparison of the punishment with that prescribed in other jurisdictions for the same offense. Cal. Const. art. 1, § 17.

Both the state and federal Constitutions bar the infliction of punishment that is grossly disproportionate to the offender’s individual culpability. (U.S. Const., 8th Amend.; Cal. Const., art. I, § 17.) How courts should fulfill that responsibility when a prisoner claims a sentence is excessive because of one or more parole denials was the core of this case.

Lifer challenges to continued incarceration as cruel or unusual punishment

In re Rodriguez (1975) 14 Cal.3d 639, 122 Cal.Rptr. 552, 537 P.2d 384 (Rodriguez)

The Supreme Court upheld a prisoner’s  challenge to his continued incarceration as cruel or unusual. Rodriguez had been sentenced to an indeterminate term of one year to life for lewd conduct with a child and, after serving 22 years in prison, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus. The Adult Authority was then charged with determining the  actual period of incarceration. The Court had an obligation to ensure that the Adult Authority’s term-fixing practices “comport with” the ban on cruel or unusual punishment set forth in article I, section 17 of the California Constitution. The Court construed the indeterminate sentencing law (ISL) as requiring the Adult Authority to “fix terms within the statutory range that are not disproportionate to the culpability of the individual offender,” since an inmate’s maximum term “may not be disproportionate to the individual prisoner’s offense.” (Id. at p. 652, 122 Cal.Rptr. 552, 537 P.2d 384.) Because Rodriguez had already served a term that was constitutionally disproportionate to his offense, we ordered him “discharged from the term under which he [was] imprisoned.” (Id. at p. 656, 122 Cal.Rptr. 552, 537 P.2d 384.)

In re Butler (2018) 4 Cal.5th 728, 744 (Butler)

The Court reaffirmed the judiciary’s critical role in ensuring that “an inmate sentenced to an indeterminate term [ ]not be held for a period grossly disproportionate to his or her individual culpability.” Inmates vindicate that constitutional right by bringing “their claims directly to court through petitions for habeas corpus.”

Prisoners with a life sentence may  challenge “the maximum term of imprisonment permitted by the statute,” notwithstanding the possibility of securing parole at some earlier date. Prisoners may challenge the minimum term established by a statute. Supreme Court precedent also demonstrates that prisoners challenge the constitutionality of the long years of imprisonment  served.

Deference to the legislature is an important element in any disproportionality analysis. The  court focuses on whether the punishment is “grossly disproportionate” to the offense and the offender or, stated another way, whether the punishment is so excessive that it “ ‘shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity.’ ” (Dillon, supra, 34 Cal.3d at p. 478, 194 Cal.Rptr. 390, 668 P.2d 697, quoting Lynch, supra, 8 Cal.3d at p. 424, 105 Cal.Rptr. 217, 503 P.2d 921; see Butler, supra, 4 Cal.5th at p. 744, 230 Cal.Rptr.3d 736, 413 P.3d 1178 [“an inmate sentenced to an indeterminate term cannot be held for a period grossly disproportionate to his or her individual culpability”]; id. at p. 746, 230 Cal.Rptr.3d 736, 413 P.3d 1178 [“A sentence violates the prohibition against unconstitutionally disproportionate sentences only if it is so disproportionate that it ‘shocks the conscience’ ”].)

Conclusion:  The California Constitution prohibits punishment that is cruel or unusual. (Cal. Const., art. I, § 17.) Courts play a pivotal role in giving these words effect. Lifers whose imprisonment have become excessive must be able to obtain relief in court by filing a petition for writ of habeas corpus. When a court adjudicates such a petition it applies the test to discern whether punishment is cruel or unusual. If a court then finds the inmate’s continued confinement has become excessive, it may order the inmate’s release from prison.

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