Amdt14.S1.8.3.5 Punishment of Crime

Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Equality of protection under the law implies that in the administration of criminal justice no person shall be subject to any greater or different punishment than another in similar circumstances. 1 Comparative gravity of criminal offenses is, however, largely a matter of state discretion, and the fact that some offenses are punished with less severity than others does not deny equal protection. 2 Heavier penalties may be imposed upon habitual criminals for like offenses, 3 even after a pardon for an earlier offense, 4 and such persons may be made ineligible for parole. 5 A state law doubling the sentence on prisoners attempting to escape does not deny equal protection by subjecting prisoners who attempt to escape together to different sentences depending on their original sentences. 6

A statute denying state prisoners good-time credit for pre-sentence incarceration, but permitting those prisoners who obtain bail or other release immediately to receive good-time credit for the entire period that they ultimately spend in custody, good time counting toward the date of eligibility for parole, does not deny the prisoners incarcerated in local jails equal protection. The distinction is rationally justified by the fact that good-time credit is designed to encourage prisoners to engage in rehabilitation courses and activities that exist only in state prisons and not in local jails. 7

The Equal Protection Clause does, however, render invalid a statute requiring the sterilization of persons convicted of various offenses when the statute draws a line between like offenses, such as between larceny by fraud and embezzlement. 8 A statute that provided that convicted defendants sentenced to imprisonment must reimburse the state for the furnishing of free transcripts of their trial by having amounts deducted from prison pay denied such persons equal protection when it did not require reimbursement of those fined, given suspended sentences, or placed on probation. 9 Similarly, a statute enabling the state to recover the costs of such transcripts and other legal defense fees by a civil action violated equal protection because indigent defendants against whom judgment was entered under the statute did not have the benefit of exemptions and benefits afforded other civil judgment debtors. 10 But a bail reform statute that provided for liberalized forms of release and that imposed the costs of operating the system upon one category of released defendants, generally those most indigent, was not invalid because the classification was rational and because the measure was in any event a substantial improvement upon the old bail system. 11 The Court has applied the clause strictly to prohibit numerous de jure and de facto distinctions based on wealth or indigency. 12

Footnotes

  1.  Pace v. Alabama, 106 U.S. 583 (1883). See Salzburg v. Maryland, 346 U.S. 545 (1954), sustaining law rendering illegally seized evidence inadmissible in prosecutions in state courts for misdemeanors but permitting use of such evidence in one county in prosecutions for certain gambling misdemeanors. Distinctions based on county areas were deemed reasonable. In North v. Russell, 427 U.S. 328 (1976), the Court sustained the provision of law-trained judges for some police courts and lay judges for others, depending upon the state constitutional classification of cities according to population, since as long as all people within each classified area are treated equally, the different classifications within the court system are justifiable.
  2.  Collins v. Johnston, 237 U.S. 502, 510 (1915); Pennsylvania v. Ashe, 302 U.S. 51 (1937).
  3.  McDonald v. Massachusetts, 180 U.S. 311 (1901); Moore v. Missouri, 159 U.S. 673 (1895); Graham v. West Virginia, 224 U.S. 616 (1912).
  4.  Carlesi v. New York, 233 U.S. 51 (1914).
  5.  Ughbanks v. Armstrong, 208 U.S. 481 (1908).
  6.  Pennsylvania v. Ashe, 302 U.S. 51 (1937).
  7.  McGinnis v. Royster, 410 U.S. 263 (1973). Cf. Hurtado v. United States, 410 U.S. 578 (1973).
  8.  Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942).
  9.  Rinaldi v. Yeager, 384 U.S. 305 (1966). But see Fuller v. Oregon, 417 U.S. 40 (1974) (imposition of reimbursement obligation for state-provided defense assistance upon convicted defendants but not upon those acquitted or whose convictions are reversed is objectively rational).
  10.  James v. Strange, 407 U.S. 128 (1972).
  11.  Schilb v. Kuebel, 404 U.S. 357 (1971).
  12.  See Poverty and Fundamental Interests: The Intersection of Due Process and Equal Protection – Generally, supra.