The Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause, derived from COMMON LAW and held to restrain the states as well as the federal government, applies to noncapital as well as capital criminal punishments. The concept of cruel and unusual punishments, while undoubtedly meant to address extremely harsh or painful methods and kinds of PUNISHMENT, also incorporates ideas of excessiveness, proportionality, and appropriateness. It is therefore relative, and whether a particular punishment is cruel and unusual depends on prevailing societal standards, objectively determined, regarding punishments. The Supreme Court has held that the clause outlaws not only punishments that are barbarous, involving torture or the intentional and unjustifiable infliction of unnecessary pain, but also forbids confinements whose length or conditions are disproportionate to the severity of crimes, serious deprivations of prisoners' basic human needs, loss of CITIZENSHIP as a punishment, and punishments for status.
In WEEMS V. UNITED STATES (1910) the Court held the Philippine punishment of cadena temporal unconstitutional as applied. The imposed punishment for the crime of making a false entry in a public record?not shown to have injured anyone?was fifteen years' imprisonment at hard and painful labor with chains, loss of CIVIL LIBERTIES, and governmental surveillance for life. The Court, in Estelle v. Gamble (1976), also held that deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious medical needs constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. In Hutto v. Finney (1978) it upheld a lower court's conclusion that routine conditions in the Arkansas prison system were so inhumane as to be cruel and unusual. Earlier, the Court had determined in TROP V. DULLES (1968) that imposing loss of citizenship on a native-born citizen for desertion in wartime was cruel and unusual because it destroyed the person's political existence and made him stateless. In implicit recognition that states may define as crimes only acts, conduct, or behavior, the Court, in Robinson v. California (1962), held criminal imprisonment for the status of being a drug addict, unaccompanied by any acts, cruel and unusual.
The question to what degree the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause may limit the power of a state to define the length of a prison sentence has been troublesome. The issue arises most often in challenges to recidivist statutes mandating life...