Solem v. Helm

463 U.S. 277

Case Year: 1983

Case Ruling: 5-4, Affirmed

Opinion Justice: Powell

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Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Blackmun, Brennan, Marshall, Stevens


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Burger

Joiner(s): O'Connor, Rehnquist, White

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


As of 2003, the Supreme Court remained committed to the position that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty--a stance that, in general, many Americans and their representatives support. However, are there other kinds of punishments that may be considered cruel and unusual? Has the Court provided us with any definition of that concept? In Solem v. Helm (1983), it attempted to do just that.

By 1979 South Dakota courts had convicted Jerry Helm of six nonviolent felonies. That year he was charged with yet another offense--writing bad checks. Normally, that crime carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine. But because of Helm's previous record, a South Dakota judge invoked a state recidivism law: if an individual is convicted of three felonies, the sentence can be the same as for a Class 1 felony, which includes life in prison with no parole and/or a $25,000 fine. Believing that Helm was beyond rehabilitation, the judge sentenced him to life in prison. After two years of trying to get the governor to commute his sentence, Helm appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming that his punishment was cruel and unusual.



The issue presented is whether the Eighth Amendment proscribes a life sentence without possibility of parole for a seventh nonviolent felony....

The Eighth Amendment declares: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The final clause prohibits not only barbaric punishments, but also sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed....

... [A]s a matter of principle that a criminal sentence must be proportionate to the crime for which the defendant has been convicted. Reviewing courts, of course, should grant substantial deference to the broad authority that legislatures necessarily possess in determining the types and limits of punishments for crimes, as well as to the discretion that trial courts possess in sentencing convicted criminals. But no penalty is per se constitutional.... [A] single day in prison may be unconstitutional in some circumstances.

When sentences are reviewed under the Eighth Amendment, courts should be guided by objective factors that our cases have recognized. First, we look to the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty.... Second, it may be helpful to compare the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction. If more serious crimes are subject to the same penalty, or to less serious penalties, that is some indication that the punishment at issue may be excessive....

Third, courts may find it useful to compare the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions....

Application of these factors assumes that courts are competent to judge the gravity of an offense, at least on a relative scale. In a broad sense this assumption is justified, and courts traditionally have made these judgments--just as legislatures must make them in the first instance....

It remains to apply the analytical framework established by our prior decisions to the case before us.... Helm's crime was "one of the most passive felonies a person could commit."... It involved neither violence nor threat of violence to any person. The $100 face value of Helm's "no account" check was not trivial, but neither was it a large amount. One hundred dollars was less than half the amount South Dakota required for a felonious theft. It is easy to see why such a crime is viewed by society as among the less serious offenses.... Helm's present sentence is life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Barring executive clemency, Helm will spend the rest of his life in the state penitentiary....

We next consider the sentences that could be imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction. When Helm was sentenced, a South Dakota court was required to impose a life sentence for murder, ... and was authorized to impose a life sentence for treason, ... first-degree manslaughter, ... first-degree arson, ... and kidnaping.... No other crime was punishable so severely on the first offense....

Helm's habitual offender status complicates our analysis, but relevant comparisons are still possible. Under [South Dakota law], the penalty for a second or third felony is increased by one class. Thus a life sentence was mandatory when a second or third conviction was for treason, first-degree manslaughter, first-degree arson, or kidnaping, and a life sentence would have been authorized when a second or third conviction was for such crimes as attempted murder, placing an explosive device on an aircraft, or first-degree rape. Finally, [the law] under which Helm was sentenced, authorized life imprisonment after three prior convictions, regardless of the crimes....

... Helm has been treated in the same manner as, or more severely than, criminals who have committed far more serious crimes.

Finally, we compare the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions. The Court of Appeals found that "Helm could have received a life sentence without parole for his offense in only one other state, Nevada," ... and we have no reason to doubt this finding.... At the very least, therefore, it is clear that Helm could not have received such a severe sentence in 48 of the 50 States. But even under Nevada law, a life sentence without possibility of parole is merely authorized in these circumstances.... We are not advised that any defendant such as Helm, whose prior offenses were so minor, actually has received the maximum penalty in Nevada. It appears that Helm was treated more severely than he would have been in any other State.... The Constitution requires us to examine Helm's sentence to determine if it is proportionate to his crime. Applying objective criteria, we find that Helm has received the penultimate sentence for relatively minor criminal conduct. He has been treated more harshly than other criminals in the State who have committed more serious crimes. He has been treated more harshly than he would have been in any other jurisdiction, with the possible exception of a single State. We conclude that his sentence is significantly disproportionate to his crime, and is therefore prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is accordingly



The controlling law governing this case is crystal clear, but today the Court blithely discards any concept of stare decisis, trespasses gravely on the authority of the states, and distorts the concept of proportionality of punishment by tearing it from its moorings in capital cases. Only three Terms ago, we held in Rummel v. Estelle (1980), that a life sentence imposed after only a third nonviolent felony conviction did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Today, the Court ignores its recent precedent and holds that a life sentence imposed after a seventh felony conviction constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Moreover, I reject the fiction that all Helm's crimes were innocuous or nonviolent. Among his felonies were three burglaries and a third conviction for drunken driving. By comparison Rummel was a relatively "model citizen." Although today's holding cannot rationally be reconciled with Rummel, the Court does not purport to overrule Rummel. I therefore dissent.