In its seminal case Robinson v. California, the Supreme Court struck down a state statute criminalizing narcotics addiction. The Court held this statute, in criminalizing the disease of drug addiction, constituted cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Six years later in Powell v. Texas, the Court declined to extend this holding to encompass alcoholism, because alcoholism involves the act of drinking rather than the status of addiction. However, the Court’s modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence has signaled a shift in its understanding of cruel and unusual punishment. The Court has begun to take into account brain development, and its relationship to culpability, for certain classes of offenders. Neurological findings regarding the brain development involved in chronic alcoholism necessitate a similar shift in the Court’s framework for analyzing the penalization of chronic alcoholism and, given the Court’s changing stance, call into question the constitutionality of Virginia’s habitual drunkard statute. Rather than viewing alcoholism under the act-versus-status dichotomy, the Court’s Eighth Amendment proportionality analysis signals a shift towards understanding addictions such as chronic alcoholism under a non-binary framework that takes into account recent scientific understandings of addiction. Much like the Court’s shift in the juvenile and intellectual disability contexts, a similar shift should occur, this Note posits, in the Court’s proportionality analysis as applied to statutes involving chronic alcoholism. This Note concludes by calling into question the continued constitutionality of Virginia’s habitual drunkard statute under the Court’s changing jurisprudence.
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