Can a prison sentence be too long? What is a disproportionate sentence in Texas?
Prison sucks, and any prison sentence can feel like cruel and unusual punishment in Texas. Can a sentence be too long to be constitutional? Theoretically yes, the Constitution places limits on how long someone can be sentenced, but in practice, it’s an argument that our appellate courts routinely reject.
How can a prison sentence be unconstitutional?
The 8th amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Over the years the Supreme Court has indicated that a sentence could be so long that it is disproportionate to the crime committed, and therefore unconstitutional. However, our Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (kind of a Supreme Court for criminal cases in Texas) is run by former prosecutors who don’t mind how long people rot in prison.
Our Court of Criminal Appeals will uphold nearly any sentence no matter how long it is, all that’s required is that the sentence is within the range of punishment. That is, if the law allows for a sentence 99 years then there is probably no case in which our Court of Criminal Appeals will give a shit if you get 99 years, no matter how trivial the actual offense was, or how unjust that sentence is.
What’s the law on sentencing and proportionality?
Here’s some quotes from a recent Dallas Court of Appeals case- Abraham vs. State, No. 05-18-00821-CR
The concept of proportionality is embodied in the United States Constitution’s ban on cruel
and unusual punishment and requires that punishment be graduated and proportioned to the
offense. U.S. CONST. amend VIII. But, this is a narrow principle that does not require strict
proportionality between the crime and the sentence. State v. Simpson, 488 S.W.3d 318, 322 (Tex.Crim. App. 2016) (citing Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 1001 (1991) (Kennedy, J.,
concurring)). Rather, it forbids only extreme sentences that are “grossly disproportionate” to the crime. Id.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has traditionally held that punishment assessed within the statutory limits is not excessive, cruel, or unusual. See Ex parte Chavez, 213 S.W.3d 320, 323–24 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006).
To determine whether a sentence for a term of years is grossly disproportionate for a
particular defendant’s crime, a court must judge the severity of the sentence in light of the harm caused or threatened to the victim, the culpability of the offender, and the offender’s prior adjudicated and unadjudicated offenses. Simpson, 488 S.W.3d at 323 (citing Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 60 (2010)).