Unlocking the Gates of Desolation Row


The U.S. criminal justice system is striking in its severity. Developments in criminal sentencing practices over the past several decades make the criminal justice system not only harsher than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century, but significantly more punitive than any other Western criminal justice system. Mandatory minimums, recidivist statutes, and the war on drugs, among other factors, have caused the prison population to skyrocket, with more people being sentenced to imprisonment for longer periods than ever before.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has been active in setting limits on the imposition of capital punishment, it has maintained a hands-off approach to noncapital sentencing, allowing sentencing practices to develop almost unchecked for decades. States and the federal government are thus given significant freedom to develop criminal justice policies as they see fit, and the result has been an increasingly punitive system that has strayed beyond the boundaries imposed by the U.S. Constitution. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution provides a protection against cruel and unusual punishments, but the doctrine as developed by the Supreme Court fails to adequately enforce this prohibition and therefore allows states to impose punishment that is cruel and unusual.

This Comment proposes a new framework for reviewing noncapital sentences to ensure that they remain within the constraints imposed by the Constitution. Specifically, this Comment argues that Eighth Amendment review of noncapital sentences must include a comprehensive analysis of the defendant’s culpability to ensure that the sentence imposed is truly proportional to the crime committed. In addition to protecting against the unconstitutional imposition of criminal sentences, this culpability framework will also create a better fit between crime and punishment, which will further the goals of punishment and improve the criminal justice system.

About the Author

Sara Taylor is a J.D. graduate of UCLA School of Law, 2012.

By uclalaw