Joy M. Donham


“The United States is besieged by an incarceration crisis which far surpasses that of any other nation.” Scholars attribute the increasing prison population to changes in sentencing policy. Politicians have used the public pressure resulting from its fear of violence to pass legislation that supports this change in policy and creates more fixed sentencing structures.

California’s Three Strikes law (Three Strikes), an example of such a structure, has resulted in the largest increase in the prison population. Public pressure, spurred by the fear of violent criminals being released and committing the same crimes again and again, led to the enactment of Three Strikes. However, the public, who now finds problems with this law and its disproportionate impact, has retracted their support for it. Three Strikes is so disproportionate that an offender can be sentenced to life imprisonment for stealing a $20 bottle of vitamins or shoplifting a single magazine.

The decision in Lockyer illuminates Three Strikes’ disproportionate impact. In this case, the sentence given under Three Strikes was so grossly disproportionate to the offense that it rose to the level of cruel and unusual punishment. The trial court completely ignored on-point precedent from a materially indistinguishable case that held a similar sentence grossly disproportionate and a violation of the Eighth Amendment. By misapplying Supreme Court precedent and imposing a grossly disproportionate sentence, the trial court acted unconstitutionally in its sentencing.

This Note will explore the proportionality of Three Strikes, issues implicated by the law, and whether the legislation should continue to exist. Section II discusses the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Three Strikes, and the three major cases dealing with sentencing proportionality. Section III discusses Lockyer v. Andrade and its history. Section IV discusses whether there is a proportionality principle attached to the Eighth Amendment, whether the policy goals behind Three Strikes are being achieved, whether Three Strikes is economically efficient, and whether Three Strikes has caused any adverse effects on convicts or the judicial system.