(CN) – “Even murderers are not treated so harshly” as Kansas handles recidivist sex offenders, the state appeals court ruled, striking down a law that would impose a life sentence on a sex offender who committed a subsequent felony.
Daniel Proctor was a teenager when he had multiple sexual encounters with 12-year-old T.C. while staying with the boy’s family in 2009.
“Proctor apparently cajoled T.C. into having manual and oral contact with Proctor’s penis,” according to the court. “Proctor also had manual contact with T.C.’s penis, behind, and anus.”
Daniel Proctor pleaded guilty in 2010 to aggravated indecent solicitation of a child, and lewd and lascivious behavior. The 19-year-old had no prior criminal history, and had indeed been the victim of sexual abuse some years earlier, so a judge in Saline County sentenced Proctor to 44 months probation, with prison time suspended.
Proctor entered a treatment program and faced lifetime postrelease supervision if he violated probation.
Commission of a crime on postrelease supervision would qualify Proctor for life sentence without parole.
After the judge rejected Proctor’s constitutional challenge to find the lifetime postrelease supervision statute, the Kansas Court of Appeals found that law constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
The court noted that the case is unusual because of its hypothetical nature.
“The thrust of Proctor’s argument for unconstitutionality, however, goes to the mandatory life-without-parole penalty that would accompany a conviction for a new felony,” Judge G. Gordon Atcheson wrote for a three-judge panel.
Since Proctor would not have a certain procedural path to challenge the law “at a juncture when the essential historical facts will have become fixed rather than conjectural,” the court proceeded under the assumption that Proctor violated his probation with some noncriminal action, such as drinking alcohol.
Assuming that the district court then ordered Proctor to serve his 44-month sentence, the court then hypothesized what would happen if Proctor later committed and pleaded guilty to a low-level felony, such as shoplifting a $1,100 ring, or writing a bad check.
“Although Proctor would be in line for probation on the bad check charge, the violation of his postrelease supervision would mandate his return to prison for the rest of his life – conservatively, some 25 to 30 years,” Atcheson wrote.
By combining two offenses that individually permit probation, the structure imposes lifetime incarceration without possible release, according to the court. “The United States Supreme Court has never upheld that sort of recidivist sentencing scheme,” Atcheson wrote.
“The deviation between the customary punishment the legislature has adopted and the result here seems, at least on its face, startlingly anomalous,” he added. “A defendant first committing a sexually based person felony and later a low-level nonperson felony, such as theft or forgery, may not be deserving of praise, but the conduct reflects a de-escalation of criminality and antisocial behavior. Why that should result in life behind bars begs an obvious explanation, particularly when the reverse behavior does not have anywhere near the same penal consequences.”
Even accounting for the sexual nature of Procter’s first crime does not warrant the punishment at hand, according to the court.
“Escalating punishment for repeat sex offenders culminating in life in prison reflects an orderly and understandable penological response to a serious social and criminal problem,” Atcheson wrote. “But imposing the same sentence – the second harshest possible – for a single sex offense followed by any felony conviction looks to be unfocused, especially operating simultaneously with the recidivist statutes targeting repeat sex offenders.”
Atcheson noted that “even murderers are not treated so harshly. A person committing successive second-degree murders could be released and then commit a low-level felony without spending the rest of his or her life in prison.”
“We, therefore, find lifetime postrelease supervision as applied to Proctor to be cruel and unusual punishment violating the Eighth Amendment,” he concluded.
The decision comes on the heels of a important finding from the Supreme Court involving mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile murderers. A close majority held last month that such sentences constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.