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October 14, 2005

Fascinating Illinois decision on proportionality

A helpful reader has pointed me to a fascinating decision handed down by the Illinois Supreme Court last week in People v. Sharpe, No. 91874 (Ill. Oct. 6, 2005) (available here).  The decision principally concerns how Illinois courts are to apply the proportionality principles appearing in article I, section 11, of the Illinois Constitution, which provides that "[a]ll penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship." 

The Sharpe decision is interesting beyond its coverage of sentencing issues.  In addition to highlighting one jurisdiction's struggle with proportionality concepts, the decision includes a thoughtful discussion of stare decisis in which the court asserts that "good cause to depart from stare decisis exists when governing decisions are unworkable or are badly reasoned."  The decision also has an extended discussion of a precedent's improper use of the Bluebook citation signal "Cf."

As detailed in this newspaper article and this official summary, Sharpe ultimately held that in Illinois a defendant may no longer "challenge a penalty under the proportionate penalties clause by comparing it to the penalty for an offense with different elements."  After a lengthy discussion of prior efforts to apply "cross-comparison proportionate penalties analysis," here is how the Sharpe Court justified its decision to abandon its prior jurisprudence:

First, [this] is clearly an area of the law in which the governing decisions are badly reasoned. As noted above, cross-comparison analysis started with a questionable citation and was never supported by any reasoning other than stating that the court has used it in several cases. Second, the governing decisions have proved unworkable.  This court has experimented with different analyses in this area, and all that we have accomplished is to make the analysis more subjective and to put ourselves in a position in which we are improperly substituting our judgment for that of the legislature.  The law in this area has never been settled for any appreciable length of time.  Third, this analysis set this court on a collision course with separation of powers principles.  Were this court to keep using the cross-comparison analysis as it had been, this court would no longer be constrained to serve as a mere check on the legislature, ensuring compliance with the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution.  Instead, we would be free to act as a superior legislative branch, substituting our judgment for the legislature whenever we disagreed with the penalties it set.

I always find it interesting when judges reverse their calls.  Too bad for the Los Angeles Angels that, despite judge-umpire analogies now being all the rage, they cannot get the Illinois Supreme Court to reverse a more recent decision that, by my lights, was also badly reasoned.

October 14, 2005 at 09:35 AM | Permalink


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In the State of Illinois, is there some way to compare sentencing. I have a nephew from downstate Illinois who got 16 years for armed robbery without a weapon. In the Chicago area, murderers get a lot less than 16 years or no jail time.

How can I bring this unfairness to light and help my nephew.

Thank You
Cornell Hudson

Posted by: Cornell Hudson | Feb 9, 2007 10:36:03 PM

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