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Abstract

This article critiques the evolving standards of decency doctrine as a form of Social Darwinism. It argues that evolving standards of decency provided a system of review that was tailor-made for Civil Rights opponents to scale back racial progress. Although as a doctrinal matter, evolving standards sought to tie punishment practices to social mores, prison sentencing became subject to political agendas that determined the course of punishment more than the benevolence of a matur-ing society. Indeed, rather than the fierce competition that is supposed to guide social development, the criminal justice system was consciously deployed as a means of social control. This evolutionary model was thus betrayed by Court opinions that allowed states nearly unfettered authority over prison sentencing and use of solitary confinement, a self-fulfilling prophecy—a deep irony in the expanded incarceration of poor, uneducated, minorities—the very population that might be expected under an evolutionary frame.

The article urges the Supreme Court to abandon evolving standards as a flawed and pernicious concept, and, simultaneously, accept the duty to reinterpret the Eighth Amendment for prison sentencing and solitary confinement. Looking forward, the article advances a blueprint for employing research and science as a means of reimagining the scale of imprisonment. It challenges the Court to do something never done before in American penal history—justify the length of prison sentences with more than just random and arbitrary figures. The Court has been trying to implement objective standards to guide punishment practices for decades, but has constantly fallen prey to its own subjective inclinations. This article suggests that the objectivity the Court has been seeking all along is there for the taking, provided it abandons the sociological myth of “survival of the fittest” along with the idea that American society is ever-progressing in humane decency. The Court must move beyond its obsessive tinkering with the death penalty and focus on the realities of “doing time” in America.

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