In re Palmer




California Supreme Court

Citation and Year

10 Cal.5th 959 (2021)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

CAL. CONST. art. 1, § 17 (“cruel or unusual punishments”)

Nature of Case

William Palmer was 17 years old when, in 1988, he pleaded guilty to “kidnapping for robbery” and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility for parole. After serving 30 years and being denied parole 10 times, Palmer filed a petition for habeas corpus and argued that his time in prison had become unconstitutionally excessive.


Prison sentences may become unconstitutionally excessive under state constitution if the Parole Board repeatedly denies parole, and prisoners may seek judicial relief via habeas corpus. “If a court then finds the inmate’s continued confinement has become excessive, it may order the inmate’s release from prison.” But it does not require termination of a parole period.


In earlier cases, the court had recognized excessive sentencing challenges to both statutory maximum and statutory minimum sentence, and its “precedent also demonstrates that an inmate may elect to challenge the constitutionality of the long years of imprisonment the inmate has served. In light of that precedent, Palmer’s claim that he suffered cruel or unusual punishment cannot fairly be characterized as a ‘new’ means of challenging his continued incarceration, nor did it depend on opening any ‘back-door.’ To the contrary: because the Board is not required to consider whether an inmate’s life term has become constitutionally excessive if the inmate has not first been found suitable for parole, Palmer’s claim can readily enter through the courthouse front door. Life-top inmates may test, in court, whether their continued punishment violates the Constitution.”

But “[r]egardless of whether an inmate challenges a sentence when first imposed or after repeated parole denials, the court’s inquiry properly focuses on whether the punishment is ‘grossly disproportionate’ to the offense and the offender or, stated another way, whether the punishment is so excessive that it ‘shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity.’” To assess this, the court noted the usual gross disproportionality factors: “(1) an examination of the nature of the offense and the offender, with particular attention to the degree of danger both pose to society; (2) a comparison of the punishment with the punishment California imposes for more serious offenses; and (3) a comparison of the punishment with that prescribed in other jurisdictions for the same offense.”