cruel and unusual punishments | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

Cruel and unusual punishments are punishments that are inhumane or violate basic human dignity; prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.


The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. This prohibition has been a cornerstone of American law since its inception. The concept of what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, however, has evolved over time.

The Supreme Court has been responsible for interpreting and enforcing the prohibition. In doing so, the Court has sought to strike a balance between the legitimate goals of punishment and the protection of human dignity.

The prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment is rooted in the idea that punishment should be proportionate to the crime. This means that the punishment should fit the offense. A punishment that is too severe or too lenient is considered disproportionate and, therefore, unconstitutional.

The Court has also held that punishment that is barbaric or shocking to the conscience is unconstitutional. For example, the Court has struck down the use of the electric chair and other forms of execution that it deemed to be excessively painful.

The prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment also prohibits punishment that is degrading or dehumanizing. A punishment that is designed to humiliate or degrade a person violates their dignity and is considered cruel and unusual.

One of the most controversial issues in the application of the prohibition is the use of the death penalty. While the Court has held that the death penalty is not inherently cruel and unusual, it has placed significant limitations on its use. The Court has prohibited the execution of juveniles, the mentally disabled, and those whose crimes do not result in death.

In addition to the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, the Eighth Amendment also prohibits excessive fines and bail. The Court has held that fines that are grossly disproportionate to the offense are unconstitutional. Similarly, excessive bail that is used to keep a defendant in custody solely because they cannot afford to pay it violates the Eighth Amendment.

The definition of cruel and unusual punishment continues to evolve, with the Court applying it to new situations and technologies. For example, the use of solitary confinement and the conditions of confinement in prison have come under scrutiny in recent years.


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Last Modified: 04/09/2023

 

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