Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Author:Sheldon Krantz

Page 729

The Eighth Amendment provides that "excessive BAIL shall not be required ? nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted." Similar provisions now exist in virtually all state constitutions. Even if they did not, the federal constitutional prohibition has been held in Robinson v. California (1962) to be binding on the states through the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT ' S DUE PROCESS CLAUSE.

A legal prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment appears to have originated in the English BILL OF RIGHTS in 1688. Its purpose then was to curtail the shockingly barbarous punishments that were so common during that period.

How the prohibition was to be applied to American society, with its different values and legal system, remained unclear a century after the enactment of the American BILL OF RIGHTS. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Supreme Court did occasionally interpret the cruel and unusual punishment language, mostly as it related to the means for executing CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. However, not until the 1970s did the Supreme Court begin to give extensive consideration to the scope and meaning of the prohibition apart from capital punishment. The Court did not decide until 1977, for example, whether the cruel and unusual punishment clause applied to persons who had not been convicted of crime. INGRAHAM V. WRIGHT (1977) raised the question whether the corporal punishment of school children constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Court held that it did not, stating that the Eighth Amendment provision is applicable only to persons convicted and incarcerated for crimes. In the Court's view, the prohibition was not necessary to protect children in public institutions, as other protections were available. Since Ingraham, the Supreme Court has also held that the Eighth Amendment is inapplicable to persons detained for treatment or detention and not punishment, such as persons committed to mental institutions (Youngblood v. Romero, 1982) or detained awaiting trial (Bell v. Wolfish, 1979). Any protection against improper punishments in such situations derives from due process of law and not the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Since the late 1970s, in a number of cases involving noncapital sentences and the treatment of prison inmates, the Court has generally given a narrow interpretation of the cruel and unusual punishment clause.

Prior to Supreme Court review of the issue, several federal and state courts had held that a sentence could be invalid on cruel and unusual punishment grounds if its length was disproportionate to the offense. Courts used several measures to determine whether a particular sentence violated the Eight Amendment: the nature of the crime, and particularly whether violence was involved; comparison of the individual sentence or statutory sentencing scheme with sentences or schemes for similar crimes in other jurisdictions; and comparison of the individual sentence or statutory sentencing scheme for the particular crime with those for other similar or more serious crimes in the same jurisdiction. Thus a federal court of appeals struck down a life...

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