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Solem v. Helm

Mixed Messages

The warden of South Dakota petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case and in 1983 the Court began reviewing it. Although the court of appeals had overturned the district court's ruling, Rummel v. Estelle did set the stage for decisions such as the district court's concerning repeat felons. Consequently, the majority's decision prevailed only by a slim margin, in the 5-4 ruling on 28 June 1983. Justice Powell and the justices in the majority argued for some objective measures in determining whether a sentence matched a crime and formulated three criteria for making this determination: Courts should first consider the seriousness of the offense and the severity of the sentence, second weigh their sentences against others in the jurisdiction for the same crime, and third compare their sentences with those of other jurisdictions for the same crime.

Using these criteria, the Court decided to uphold the ruling by the court of appeals. Helm's crimes ranked less serious than other crimes punishable by life imprisonment without parole--the state's maximum penalty--and the crimes did not involve violence or the threat of violence. According to the majority opinion, society generally views Helm's crimes, especially his last, as less serious than other felonies such as murder, assault, and rape. The Court concluded that Helm's sentence was equal or more severe than the sentences of people in the state who committed much more serious crimes and more severe than in any other state, except Nevada for similar crimes.

The majority's decision relied on a subtle distinction between the Rummel and Helm cases: Rummel received a sentence with the possibility of parole, whereas Helm receive a life sentence without that possibility. After 12 years, Rummel could be eligible for parole for good behavior, but Helm would not have that option. The Court also noted that Helm had an alcohol addiction and that his crimes stemmed from this addiction. With proper treatment, Helm could arguably be rehabilitated. However, his sentence prevented such rehabilitation, according to the majority. Therefore, they upheld the ruling by the court of appeals.

On the other hand, the dissenting justices argued that given the recent decision in Rummel v. Estelle the life sentence did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. They reasoned that because Rummel committed only three felonies: fraudulently using a credit card, passing a forged check, and obtaining money under false pretenses, all of which were nonviolent, his sentence certainly was no more severe than Helm's. Moreover, since the majority made no effort to overturn this ruling, the dissenting justices questioned the consistency of the majority's opinion when the Court had deemed a life sentence for a man convicted of three felonies acceptable and not in violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In addition, the five justice majority in Rummel v. Estelle agreed that states had the right to impose the length of prison sentences at their discretion.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Solem v. Helm - The Origins Of Proportional Punishment, The Case Of Jerry Helm, Mixed Messages, Lingering Problems