The Fair Punishment Project recently filed an amicus brief, along with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, in the Oregon Supreme Court. The case is State v. Steven Levi Ryan, and the issue the Oregon Supreme Court will decide is:

Under Article I, section 16, of the Oregon Constitution, and the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibit disproportionate sentences, must a trial court consider a defendant’s mental functioning, and the likelihood of effective treatment given that mental functioning, when deciding whether a substantial, mandatory-minimum prison term would shock the conscience of reasonable people?

The amicus makes three points in support of Mr. Ryan’s position that his mandatory sentence is disproportionate. First, the brief emphasizes that a person’s intellectual disability reduces moral culpability. Drawing on decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court, the brief explores the impact that substantial intellectual deficits often have on a person’s life, how they compromise decision-making abilities, the way they limit blameworthiness, and how they make defending against criminal charges even more difficult than it is for average people. Given that people with intellectual disabilities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, a decision that permits sentencing courts to ignore intellectual disability will have a significant effect on the number of disproportionate sentences in Oregon.

Second, the brief analyzes Oregon jurisprudence and points out that the law already makes clear that when courts determine whether a sentence is disproportionate under the constitution, they must consider characteristics of the defendant. Oregon courts have been especially willing to consider negative characteristics that support mandatory sentencing. For example, courts often rely on criminal history—including both prior arrests and convictions—as well as negative uncharged conduct to defend the legality of a mandatory sentence. What the Oregon Supreme Court must re-establish is that other characteristics—culpability-reducing traits like intellectual disability, mental illness, and the prospect for effective treatment—must also factor into the disproportionality analysis. Otherwise, the exercise of reviewing for disproportionality becomes an exercise in fine-tuning confirmatory biases.    

Third, the amicus brief describes how mandatory sentencing regimes inappropriately expand prosecutorial discretion and cut against the penological goal of rehabilitation. In Oregon, the crime for which Mr. Ryan was charged and convicted—sexual abuse—is defined in an extremely broad statute. When a mandatory sentence applies to a statute that prohibits a wide range of conduct, the legislature essentially shifts additional power to prosecutors who make charging decisions. As we have seen so often, unchecked prosecutors often file coercive charges to maximize a defendant’s sentencing exposure. Not only should courts be wary of mandatory sentences in these circumstances, but they should also be mindful of recent U.S. Supreme Court caselaw that describes how mandatory sentences undermine the goal and possibility of rehabilitation.  

The federal and state constitutional prohibitions of cruel and unusual punishment should protect Mr. Ryan from the mandatory sentence imposed in this case. The FPP filed this amicus to help fulfill its commitment to highlight and challenge the use of excessive punishment.