• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s proscription of cruel and unusual punishment prohibited disproportionately severe penalties in noncapital cases.

When Jerry Helm was convicted of writing a bad check, it was his seventh felony conviction in South Dakota. All the offenses had been relatively minor, nonviolent crimes against property. Under the state’s habitual offender statute, however, a person convicted of four felonies could be given the maximum penalty for a class-one felony. Helm was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. In Rummel v. Estelle[case]Rummel v. Estelle[Rummel v. Estelle] (1980), the Supreme Court had voted five to four to allow Texas to impose a penalty of life imprisonment, with the opportunity for parole, for a man who had been convicted of three separate theft offenses that totaled $289. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., dissented in that case.Cruel and unusual punishment;Solem v. Helm[Solem v. Helm]

In his majority opinion for Solem v. Helm, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., argued that the term "cruel and unusual" referred to more than physically barbaric practices.

(Library of Congress)

By a 5-4 vote, the Court overturned Helm’s sentence. Powell,Powell, Lewis F., Jr.;Solem v. Helm[Solem v. Helm] in the majority opinion, argued that the term “cruel and unusual” referred to more than barbaric practices, and he insisted that the principle of proportionality applied to felony prison sentences. Spending one’s life in prison was out of proportion to the commission of several relatively minor crimes, and it was also disproportionate in the sense that it was harsher than punishments often given to people for more serious crimes, such as rape and murder. In Harmelin v. Michigan[case]Harmelin v. Michigan[Harmelin v. Michigan] (1991), nevertheless, the Court voted five to four to uphold a life sentence, without possibility of parole, imposed on an individual for possessing 772 grams of cocaine.

Cruel and unusual punishment

Eighth Amendment

Rummel v. Estelle

Weems v. United States

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