Supreme Court Decisions Will Impact Corrections

Article excerpt

This past spring, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two decisions that will have a big impact on federal, state and local correctional policies. The first opinion challenged the constitutionality of three-strikes laws, while the second examined whether law enforcement officials, including corrections officials, can require the registration of sex offenders and child kidnappers.

The first decision, Ewing v. California, involved a repeat offender who had been sentenced by a lower court to 25 years in prison for robbing a golf pro shop. The offender appealed his sentence, arguing that it violated the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against grossly disproportionate sentences. The state, however, argued that the sentence was justified under California's three-strikes law.

Under this law, when an individual is convicted of a felony and has one or more prior felony convictions defined as serious or violent, that individual must be sentenced to "twice the term otherwise provided as punishment for the current felony conviction." Additionally, if the defendant has two or more prior serious or violent felony convictions, he or she must receive "an indeterminate term of life imprisonment." If sentenced to life under California's three-strikes law, an individual only becomes eligible for parole on a date calculated by reference to a "minimum term," which is the greater of three times the term otherwise provided for the current conviction, 25 years, or a term determined by the court.

In Ewing, the offender had a history of criminal behavior, having pled guilty or been convicted several times of theft, grand theft auto, battery and possession of drug paraphernalia. As a result of these previous serious and violent felony convictions, the trial judge was required under California's three-strikes law to sentence the offender to 25 years to life in prison when the offender was later convicted of robbery.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, the offender argued that his 25-year-to-life sentence was grossly disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment and that California's three-strikes law was unconstitutional. In deciding whether a sentence violates the Eight Amendment, the high court examines the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty, as well as the sentences imposed on other offenders who committed similar crimes in the same jurisdiction and the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions.

The Supreme Court has traditionally held that the Eighth Amendment does not require strict proportionality between the crime and the sentence, but instead forbids only extreme sentences that are "grossly disproportionate" to the crime. Further, the Supreme Court has historically deferred to state legislatures in making and implementing important policy decisions, including policies related to sentencing offenders.

In the case of the 25-to-life sentence for robbing a golf pro shop, the Supreme Court ruled in Ewing that nothing in the Eighth Amendment prohibits a state from deciding that the best way to protect its citizens is to impose longer sentences on offenders who have already been convicted of at least one serious or violent crime.

The justices wrote: "To be sure, [the offender's] sentence is a long one. But it reflects a rational legislative judgment, entitled to deference, that offenders who have committed serious or violent felonies and who continue to commit felonies must be incapacitated. The state of California was entitled to place upon [the offender] the onus of one who is simply unable to bring his conduct within the social norms prescribed by the criminal law of the state."

In a second opinion, the Supreme Court upheld the right of officials within state correctional departments to require incarcerated sex offenders or child kidnappers to register with the department of corrections prior to release. …