Cruel Punishment: Proportionate Sentencing and the Delaware Constitution

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University of Delaware
This paper builds an argument for why the Delaware Supreme Court should establish broader protections against disproportionate prison sentences under the Delaware Constitution’s Cruel Punishment Clause than the United States Supreme Court has interpreted to exist under the United States Constitution’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. Beginning with Rummel v. Estelle in 1980, the United States Supreme Court decided a line of six cases on the issue of excessive prison terms. These cases failed to establish clear, consistent, or humane standards for disproportionality claims. Unlike federal courts, state courts are not bound to follow all of the Supreme Court’s precedents. Under the doctrine of “judicial federalism,” state courts can interpret their state constitutions in ways that extend greater protections to citizens of the state. To explore the issue of disproportionality claims at the state level, the LEXIS KEY WORDS system was used to locate major state supreme court decisions on sentencing disproportionality from 1980 to 2011. State courts have essentially followed one of two paths. The first path is to apply the United States Supreme Court’s jurisprudence to disproportionality claims. The second is to establish broader protections against lengthy prison terms under the state constitution. Although the Delaware Supreme Court has attempted to make sense of the United States Supreme Court’s holdings, the results have been contradictory. This paper concludes with the assertion that the Delaware Supreme Court should extend broader protections against excessive sentences under the Cruel Punishment Clause of the Delaware Constitution, using preponderance of the evidence as the threshold standard for disproportionality claims.
proportionate sentencing, Delaware constitution, Delaware Supreme Court, cruel punishment clause, disproportionality claims