Sunday, June 21, 2009

78 Years To Life Not Cruel Or Unusual

The Eighth Amendment and its California counterpart have gotten lots of judicial attention lately, although most claims have been unsuccessful. In People v. Haller (here), a sentence of 78 years to life was held not to violate the federal or state constitutions. The defendant was found guilty of a number of felonies involving threats to his ex-wife and her current husband and assault with a deadly weapon on the husband, and also had two prior serious felonies. Given the defendant's age, the sentence amounted to life without possibility of parole. Nevertheless, the court upheld the sentence due to the seriousness of the offenses and the defendant's prior record.

The decision contains language that minimizes the interjurisdictional component of the test for determining whether a California sentence is cruel or unusual: "In any event, the fact that defendant’s current offenses might not qualify for recidivist sentencing in other states does not render the California punishment cruel or unusual. “That California’s punishment scheme is among the most extreme does not compel the conclusion that it is unconstitutionally cruel or unusual. This state constitutional consideration does not require California to march in lockstep with other states in fashioning a penal code. It does not require ‘conforming our Penal Code to the “majority rule” or the least common denominator of penalties nationwide.’ (Martinez, supra, 71 Cal.App.4th at p. 1516; accord, Sullivan, supra, 151 Cal.App.4th at p. 573.)

Thus, the decision contains little that is new, and continues the erosion of federal or state constitutional limits on California's draconian sentencing laws. Haller is no doubt a dangerous felon, but wouldn't 50 years to life be enough? Do we really want a prison system full of elderly and sick inmates?

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