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Georgia Life Sentence for Failure to Register is Unconstitutional

by Mark Wilson

With one Justice “strongly dissenting,” the Georgia Supreme Court held that a mandatory life sentence for failing to register as a sex offender violates the proportionality clause for the United States Constitution.

In 1996, Georgia first enacted its sex offender registration law. It punished the first failure to register as a misdemeanor. Subsequent violations were punishable as felonies and a prison sentence of one to three years. In 2002, the law was amended to punish the first violation by one to three years and subsequent violations by one to three years and up to a $100,000 fine. In 2006, the law was amended again, making the first violation punishable by 10 to 30 years in prison and a second violation punishable by life imprisonment.

Cedric Lowell Bradshaw was convicted of a second failure to register under the 2006 amendment and sentenced to life imprisonment. He appealed, arguing that the sentence violated the proportionality clauses of the Georgia and United States Constitutions.

The Georgia Supreme Court applied only the Eighth Amendment’s proportionality analysis, which “contains a ‘narrow proportionality principle’ that ‘applies to noncapital cases’” Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 18, 20. 123 S. Ct. 1179 (2003). It “forbids ‘only extreme sentences that are “grossly disproportionate” to the crime.’” Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 1001, 111 S. Ct. 2680 (1991). Under this test, “if a threshold inference of gross disproportionality is raised…the court then determines whether the inference of gross disproportionality is confirmed by a comparison of the defendant’s sentence to sentences imposed for other crimes within Georgia and for the same crime in other jurisdictions.” Harmelin, supra, 501 U.S. at 1005. Courts apply “objective factors” including the framework established in Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277, 284, 103 S. Ct. 3001 (1983).

Applying these principles, the Court concluded “that the imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment is so harsh in comparison to the crime for which it was imposed that it is unconstitutional.” The dissenting Justice criticized the Majority for discounting “the felony of failure to register as a sex offender as being nonviolent and passive.” She also took issue with the Majority’s suggestion that life imprisonment is the third most severe penalty permitted by law, behind death and life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. She noted that Bradshaw would be eligible for parole after seven years, a point the Majority discounted because parole was purely discretionary and Bradshaw lacked an enforceable right to parole. See: Bradshaw v. Georgia, 284 Ga. 675, 671 S.E.2d 485 (GA S. Ct. 2008).

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Related legal case

Bradshaw v. Georgia