Most people are familiar with the fact that the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment and, in fact, so do most state constitutions. But while we can all generally agree that the Eighth Amendment says that prisoners shouldn’t spend their days being whipped and tortured, defining “cruel and unusual” in a practical manner is surprisingly difficult -especially since this standard is so largely subjective. So what, exactly, are cruel and unusual punishments and how are these abuses prevented under the law? The answer is, unsurprisingly, a bit complex.
Defining Cruel and Unusual Punishment
The text of Eighth Amendment of the Constitution reads “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel or unusual punishments inflicted.” The prohibitions against excessive bail and fines are easy enough to understand even if a specific monetary limit to these terms is difficult to assign to these terms. But when it comes to cruel and unusual, things are a little less clear. Essentially, this last clause is a prohibition of penalties that seem either outright barbaric or too severe for the specific crime being punished.
What is Considered Barbaric or Too Cruel?
Defining a barbaric punishment will vary based on the society in question. What is barbaric in modern society might seem completely normal to Vikings, who would regularly make violent sacrifices to their gods, or even Puritans, who would often lock people in the stocks for days. This is one of the reasons so may criminal justice reform advocates are fighting so hard to have the Supreme Court reconsider the validity of the death penalty in modern times.
While the death penalty may have seemed reasonable when the Eighth Amendment was written, in modern times, public opinion increasingly has turned against this penalty, finding it to be far too cruel for even the most serious crimes. This opinion has become increasingly popular as public awareness has increased about racial biases in our justice system and more and more studies have revealed that the of the death penalty is incredibly inefficient as a deterrent to crimes.
As it stands, the Court has already ruled that the executions of the mentally incapacitated, those convicted of rape (and no other offenses) and those under 18 are both unconstitutional. A federal appeals court even ruled California’s death penalty illegal at one point because inmates sat on death row too long, with the judge stating that it ultimately means “life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”
Even if the Supreme Court refuses to accept any new cases and rule against the use of the death penalty though, the public could even push Congress to issue a new constitutional amendment or law prohibiting its use. In fact, many states have already done this on their own. That’s where cruel and unusual differ.
The Problem With Unusually Severe Punishments
It’s easy enough to see how some cruel punishments under the Eighth Amendment can be remedied under the law. But when it comes to the “unusual” part of the amendment, things are more difficult. That’s because each of these cases needs to be considered on an individual basis.
The Supreme Court has determined that cruel and unusual involves a penalty that is:
- degrading to human dignity
- inflicted in a wholly arbitrary fashion
- clearly and totally rejected throughout society
- patently unnecessary.
These four tenants are what lower appeals courts will use to consider whether a punishment is deemed inappropriate in a given situation. A few things the courts have determined to be unconstitutional include sentencing someone to a 56 year prison sentence for forging checks valued at under $500 total and handcuffing a prisoner in an area exposed to the sun for hours.
What is considered cruel and unusual also applies to prison and jail conditions, meaning those sentenced to incarceration must receive adequate food, shelter, medical care and sanitation. Additionally, guards cannot arbitrarily put prisoners in solitary confinement or maliciously beat prisoners.
If you have any questions about what is considered cruel or unusual under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, please contact a criminal defense attorney like Peter M. Liss by calling (760) 643-4050.