When convicted and sentenced to serve time, many of us view it positively, as rightly deserved punishment for crimes committed against your society. But is lady justice always fair?
In certain cases, the sentence can be longer than they should be. These unfair sentences are referred to as disproportionate sentences.
What is a disproportionate sentence?
A sentence is considered disproportionate if the length of the sentence is longer than it should be, compared to the crime you committed.
For example, there are many Texans who have been convicted of possessing drugs and have been sentenced to the same length of sentences as those convicted of murder.
Additionally, a sentence can also be disproportionate if the punishment is too severe for the criminal defendant. For example, a mentally ill person who has committed a crime sentenced to capital punishment.
The law vs disproportionate sentences
The 8th Amendment in the United States Constitution protects us against unusual and cruel punishment such as disproportionate sentencing, especially in capital punishment cases. It also protects defendants against excessive fines or bail. As a whole, it requires sentencing to be proportionate to the crime.
Sometimes, judges hand out unjustly long sentences through sentence enhancement. However, the 6th Amendment requires factual determination of evidence by the jury to support sentencing.
The 6th amendment can protect you in cases where a disproportionate sentence has been set by a judge based on facts that do not meet the ‘beyond reasonable doubt criteria.
For example, where a judge uses evidence received at a hearing to enhance a sentence without a jury’s involvement.
How do the courts in Texas determine sentencing for crimes?
In Texas, the courts will uphold any sentence for a crime as long as it is in the range of statutory limits, and it is not unusual, excessive, or cruel. Usually, punishment for crimes is left to judges and juries.
In order to determine whether a sentence is fair, the courts look at;
- The crime committed and the length of time sentenced to serve
- The defendant’s criminal record, and;
- The harm caused to the victim and its severity.
In Texas, when you are convicted of a 1st-degree felony and have no criminal record, you can be sentenced to between 5 and 99 years in prison.
Repeat vs habitual offenders in Texas
If you are a repeat offender (which means you have a prior felony in your record), the penalties for your crime increase depending on your case circumstances.
If you are a habitual offender ( a defendant with two or more prior felony convictions), Texas laws such as the three-strikes law, allows the courts to sentence you to a minimum of 25 years in jail.
An excellent example of this is the case of Larry Dayries v. The State of Texas–Appeal from 147th District Court of Travis County.
These sentences may seem exceedingly harsh or prolonged, especially for small offences, but it happens. Texas allows juries and judges to give such sentences, as long as they are in the authorized range as outlined in the statutes.
Why do judges and jurors give disproportionate sentences?
Apart from the laws in Texas, there are other reasons that cause disproportionate sentences. For example, the personality of the judge may be a factor.
A good scenario is where you have committed a crime against a woman, and the judge is a strong advocate for women’s rights.
The judge may end up giving excessive punishment for the crime because of their stand.
There are also cases where a jury decides the punishment and, unfortunately, chooses to give an excessive jail term. For example, in cases where parole eligibility instructions mislead a jury to give a longer jail term than necessary.
Can you challenge disproportionate sentences?
Ideally, the law in Texas is supposed to provide guidance on how to decide the right sentence.
Additionally, it should provide guidance on how to rehabilitate convicted felons, prevent recurrence of crime, and to prescribe fair penalties.
However, disproportionate sentences still happen.
There are bills in places that protect defendants against unfair sentencing in Texas.
For example, Texas bill HB 1279 modifies jury instructions to ensure no misleading information is given to jurors, leading them to impose a disproportionate sentence.
Although it’s not easy to challenge long prison sentences in Texas appellate courts, it is possible. Some people rely on the 8th Amendment argument to fight such sentences.
Others choose to point out flaws in court proceedings that may have led the judge or jury to give an unjustly long sentence. You may be able to ask for a new trial such as in the State vs. Stewart, 282 S.W.3d 736 case.
If you are facing a disproportionate sentence, call an experienced criminal attorney in North Texas for help.