Harmelin v. Michigan/Dissent Stevens
Justice STEVENS, with whom Justice BLACKMUN joins, dissenting.
While I agree wholeheartedly with Justice WHITE's dissenting opinion, I believe an additional comment is appropriate.
The severity of the sentence that Michigan has mandated for the crime of possession of more than 650 grams of cocaine, whether diluted or undiluted, does not place the sentence in the same category as capital punishment. I remain convinced that Justice Stewart correctly characterized the penalty of death as "unique" because of "its absolute renunciation of all that is embodied in our concept of humanity." Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 306, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 2760, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (1972) (Stewart, J., concurring). Nevertheless, a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole does share one important characteristic of a death sentence: The offender will never regain his freedom. Because such a sentence does not even purport to serve a rehabilitative function, the sentence must rest on a rational determination that the punished "criminal conduct is so atrocious that society's interest in deterrence and retribution wholly outweighs any considerations of reform or rehabilitation of the perpetrator." Id., at 307, 92 S.Ct., at 2761. Serious as this defendant's crime was, I believe it is irrational to conclude that every similar offender is wholly incorrigible.
The death sentences that were at issue and invalidated in Furman were "cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual." Id., at 309, 92 S.Ct., at 2762. In my opinion the imposition of a life sentence without possibility of parole on this petitioner is equally capricious. As Justice WHITE has pointed out, under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, with all relevant enhancements, petitioner's sentence would barely exceed 10 years. Ante, at 1026-1027. In most States, the period of incarceration for a first offender like petitioner would be substantially shorter. No jurisdiction except Michigan has concluded that the offense belongs in a category where reform and rehabilitation are considered totally unattainable. Accordingly, the notion that this sentence satisfies any meaningful requirement of proportionality is itself both cruel and unusual.
I respectfully dissent.