In light of the dehumanizing effects of a felony conviction, the Eighth Amendment sentencing principle requiring individualized sentencing determination in capital sentences and juvenile life-without-parole sentences should be extended to all felony cases. In Woodson v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court proscribed the use of mandatory death sentences. One year later, in Lockett v. Ohio, the Court expanded this principle to hold that defendants in capital cases were entitled to “individualized sentencing determinations.” The Court’s reasoning in both cases centered on the seriousness of the death penalty. Because the death penalty is “different” in its seriousness and irrevocability, the Court required the sentencing court, whether judge or jury, to assess the individualized characteristics of the offender and the offense before imposing a sentence. In 2012, the Court expanded this Eighth Amendment concept to juvenile life-without-parole sentences in Miller v. Alabama. Specifically, the Court held that juvenile offenders also were unique—in their capacity for rehabilitation and their diminished culpability—such that they too deserved individualized sentencing determinations. The seriousness of the sentence in question, life without parole, also factored into the Court’s decision to extend the individualized sentencing requirement to juvenile life without parole cases. Felony convictions, however, are serious too. The current consequences for a felony conviction in most states result in dehumanizing effects that extend far beyond release including loss of right to vote, state surveillance, and loss of the right to own a firearm, not to mention social stigma. As such, this Article argues for an extension of the Court’s Eighth Amendment individualized sentencing principle to all felony cases. Doing so would require the Court to overrule its prior decisions, including Harmelin v.Michigan, but the Court’s opinion in Miller hints at a willingness to do just that. While initially valuable in ensuring that capital cases received heightened scrutiny, the unintentional consequence of the Court’s differentness principle is that non-capital cases have received almost no constitutional scrutiny. The individualized sentencing determination requirement provides one simple way to begin to remedy this shortcoming. Adopting this doctrinal extension would have three major consequences: (1) it would provide each defendant his day in court in the face of serious, lifelong deprivations; (2) it would eliminate draconian mandatory sentencing practices; and (3) it would shift the sentencing determination away from prosecutors back to judges. Part I of the Article describes the evolution of the individualized sentencing doctrine. Part II exposes the unintended consequences of the differentness concept, and unearths the theoretical principles behind individualized sentencing. In Part III, the Article argues for the expansion of the current doctrine and explains why the current roadblocks are not insurmountable. Part IV then explores the consequences of broadening the application of the individualized sentencing doctrine for defendants, legislators, and judges alike.
William W. Berry
June 19, 2019