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Rethinking Robinson V. California in the Wake of Jones V. Los Angeles: Avoiding the "Demise of the Criminal Law" by Attending to "Punishment"

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Volume: 98 Issue: 2 Dated: Winter 2008 Pages: 429-488
Martin R. Gardner
Date Published
60 pages
This article explores the ramifications of Jones v. Los Angeles (finding that it was cruel and unusual punishment to impose criminal sanctions upon homeless persons violating a city ordinance) and argues that, while the decision may in part be consistent with Robinson (Robinson v. California) and Powell (Powell v. Texas), it should be rejected.
It is argued that the implications pose at least a threat to the ongoing vitality of the criminal law as traditionally understood. Arguments are presented why such a threat should be resisted and shown that it has risen because of misapplication of the eighth amendment in Robinson resulting from the Court’s failure shared by the Jones court in portions of its opinion. The Supreme Court is urged to utilize due process principles in reconsidering Robinson as a case manifesting arbitrary state action as illustrated by the characterization of the sanction at issue as a blatantly indefensible imposition of governmental power. On such reconsideration, the Court should clarify Robinson as holding that an action is a constitutional prerequisite for infliction of the punitive sanction. For nearly 40 years, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Robinson v. California has been understood to hold merely that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment forbids punishing status conditions thus requiring a criminal act as a precondition for imposition of the criminal sanction. However, a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case, Jones v. Los Angeles would expand the reach of Robinson from simply embodying the actus reus requirement to also forbid as a mens rea matter the punishment of acts deemed inherent in status conditions. In essence, Jones found that it was cruel and unusual punishment to impose criminal sanctions upon homeless persons who violated a city ordinance prohibiting among other things, sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks. To punish such acts was to punish the status contrary to Robinson. Jones is evaluated and argued that extending Robinson poses a radical threat to traditional criminal law doctrine that perhaps even threatens the continued existence of the criminal law itself.