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Solem v. Helm - The Origins Of Proportional Punishment, The Case Of Jerry Helm, Mixed Messages, Lingering Problems

court life petitioner june


Herman Solem, Warden


Jerry Buckley Helm

Petitioner's Claim

That according to South Dakota law repeat felons must serve life in prison without parole. Helm had been convicted of six crimes prior to his conviction for writing a bad check for $100.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner

Mark V. Meierhenry

Chief Lawyer for Respondent

John J. Burnett

Justices for the Court

Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, Jr. (writing for the Court), John Paul Stevens

Justices Dissenting

Warren E. Burger, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, Byron R. White


Washington, D.C.

Date of Decision

28 June 1983


The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the court of appeals' decision that life imprisonment without parole for passing a bogus check constituted a disproportionate punishment, which the Eighth Amendment prohibits given the crime.


This case along with a host of others helped the Supreme Court define which punishments fit which crimes. The case also calls into question blanket "three strikes and your out" laws where states impose life sentences on anyone with three or more felonies as well as "petty with a prior" laws where anyone previously convicted of a felony is charged with a felony for committing a petty theft.

Related Cases

  • Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910).
  • Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263 (1980).


West Encyclopedia of American Law, Vol. 7. Minneapolis, MN: West Publishing, 1998

Further Readings

  • DiSpoldo, Nick. "Three-Strikes Laws." Commonweal, June 14, 1996.
  • Finkel, Norman J., Stephen T. Maloney, et al. "Recidivism, Proportionalism, and Individualized Punishment." The American Behavioral Scientist, February 1996.
  • Mathews, Gordon. "Bad Check Conviction Not Worth Life Sentence." American Banker, June 30, 1983, p. 16.
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