The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the infliction of cruel and unusual punishments.  Prisoners on death row argue that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.  The United States Supreme Court has held that it violates the Eighth Amendment to execute prisoners who have intellectual disabilities or who committed their crimes when they were juveniles.  Prisoners also often argue that various prison punishments or conditions violate the Eighth Amendment.  Solitary confinement is a prison punishment that may one day be found to violate the Eighth Amendment.

The Eighth Amendment does not give examples of cruel and unusual punishment nor does it discuss how to determine if a particular punishment is cruel and unusual.  In his concurring opinion, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brennan discussed four guiding principles used to determine whether a punishment violates the 8th Amendment in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)

“The primary principle is that a punishment must not be so severe as to be degrading to the dignity of human beings. Pain, certainly, may be a factor in the judgment. . . “  408 U.S. 238, 271.. . .

More than the presence of pain, however, is comprehended in the judgment that the extreme severity of a punishment makes it degrading to the dignity of human beings. The barbaric punishments condemned by history, ‘punishments which inflict torture, such as the rack, the thumb-screw, the iron boot, the stretching of limbs, and the like,’ are, of course, ‘attended with acute pain and suffering.’ O’Neil v. Vermont, 144 U.S. 323, 339, 12 S.Ct. 693, 699, 36 L.Ed. 450 (1892) (Field, J., dissenting). When we consider why they have been condemned, however, we realize that the pain involved is not the only reason. The true significance of these punishments is that they treat members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded. They are thus inconsistent with the fundamental premise of the Clause that even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of common human dignity.  408 U.S. 238, 272-273.. . .

In determining whether a punishment comports with human dignity, we are aided also by a second principle inherent in the Clause—that the State must not arbitrarily inflict a severe punishment. This principle derives from the notion that the State does not respect human dignity when, without reason, it inflicts upon some people a severe punishment that it does not inflict upon others. Indeed, the very words ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ imply condemnation of the arbitrary infliction of severe punishments. . . 408 U.S. 238, 274.. . .

A third principle inherent in the Clause is that a severe punishment must not be unacceptable to contemporary society. Rejection by society, of course, is a strong indication that a severe punishment does not comport with human dignity. In applying this principle, however, we must make certain that the judicial determination is as objective as possible.  408 U.S. 238, 277.. . .

The final principle inherent in the Clause is that a severe punishment must not be excessive. A punishment is excessive under this principle if it is unnecessary: The infliction of a severe punishment by the State cannot comport with human dignity when it is nothing more than the pointless infliction of suffering. If there is a significantly less severe punishment adequate to achieve the purposes for which the punishment is inflicted, cf. Robinson v. California, supra, at 666, 82 S.Ct., at 1420; id., at 677, 82 S.Ct., at 1426 (Douglas, J., concurring); Trop v. Dulles, supra, 356 U.S., at 114, 78 S.Ct., at 605 (Brennan, J., concurring), the punishment inflicted is unnecessary and therefore excessive. . . 408 U.S. 238, 279.

The State sometimes is so zealous in prosecuting people that it seems like they have violated the Eighth Amendment.  While it’s doubtful that the State has actually violated the Eighth Amendment, you need an experienced defense attorney to fight for you.  Attorney Gary Rohlwing has over three decades of experience.  Call him today for a free consultation.

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