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Cruel and Unusual Punishment

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution says criminal defendants have the right to be free from "cruel and unusual" punishment. The Constitution guarantees defendants' fundamental rights and protections tied to their treatment by corrections personnel during their confinement.

When inmates make an Eighth Amendment challenge to punishment and confinement conditions, they typically do so in connection with federal civil rights laws. These laws include U.S. Code Title 42, Section 1983, and the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

Read on to learn more about cruel and unusual punishment and ways to challenge confinement conditions.

Eighth Amendment Protections

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights prohibits excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishment. It prevents the government from imposing excessive fines and physical criminal repercussions.

Punishment that is inhumane or violates basic human dignity may be deemed "cruel and unusual." There is no one-size-fits-all definition of cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on specific instances of alleged cruel and unusual punishment. These opinions provide clarity on what sort of conditions and treatment are unconstitutional.

Until the early 1900s, the Supreme Court adhered to a historical interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. The court considered whether a particular punishment was cruel and unusual by comparing it to a similar punishment that was deemed cruel and unusual in the 1700s. As society progressed, the court developed its interpretation of the Eighth Amendment protection.

Often, "cruel and unusual punishment" refers to prison conditions. However, Eighth Amendment analysis may also come into play concerning other facets of criminal procedure such as sentencing.

Proportional Punishment

Supreme Court precedent has changed on the proportionality of offenses. For decades, the court held that a sentence had to be proportional to the crime committed. However, that precedent was overturned in 1991. The Supreme Court clarified in its opinion in Harmelin v. Michigan that sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the crime are in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Strict proportionality between crime and punishment is not.

Weems v. United States (1910)

The case of Weems v. United States (1910) introduced the idea of proportionality to the Supreme Court's analysis. In Trop v. Dulles (1958), then-Chief Justice Earl Warren referenced the influence of Weems. Warren said the 1910 court had ruled that the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishments “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."

Paul Weems, a United States official, falsified records while he was in the Philippines. He was prosecuted in the Philippines and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. He was also permanently deprived of his political rights, and government authorities would surveil him for life.

The U.S. Supreme Court noted the difficulty in defining cruel and unusual punishment precisely. The court cited examples of obvious cruel and unusual punishments such as beheadings, torture, and burning someone alive. The court held that an excessive sentence like the one Weems faced could be unconstitutional.

Solem v. Helm (1983)

The court established factors to measure proportionality in Solem v. Helm. The defendant, Jerry Helm, was previously convicted of six nonviolent felonies in South Dakota. The state then convicted him of a seventh nonviolent felony. Due to South Dakota law, he received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. He filed an action alleging that this sentence violated his Eighth and 14th Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court reiterated that a criminal sentence must be proportional to the crime committed. Proportionality applies regardless of whether the crime was a felony or misdemeanor. The court established several objective factors that courts must consider when reviewing sentences:

  • The gravity of the offense
  • The harshness of the penalty
  • A comparison of sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction
  • A comparison of sentences imposed for the commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions

The Supreme Court concluded that Helm's sentence was “significantly disproportionate to his crime." The justices determined that the sentence violated his Eighth Amendment rights. The case strengthened the principle that disproportionate sentences are unconstitutional.

Harmelin v. Michigan (1991)

The Supreme Court in Harmelin v. Michigan concluded that the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee proportional sentences. In that case, the state of Michigan convicted Ronald Harmelin of possessing 672 grams of cocaine. The state mandatorily sentenced him to life in prison. Harmelin argued that his sentence was cruel and unusual. He said it was significantly disproportionate to his crime. Harmelin also argued that the mandatory sentence was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court affirmed Harmelin's conviction and overturned Solem in the process. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that there is no constitutional right to proportional sentences. Regarding Harmelin's second argument, Scalia said that “severe, mandatory penalties may be cruel, but they are not unusual in the constitutional sense."

The court, however, left open a narrow exception for sentences that led to an inference of “gross disproportionality."

Ewing v. California (2003)

California's three-strikes law imposes a prison sentence of 25 years to life imprisonment for certain convictions. If an individual is convicted of three violent or serious felony offenses, they must receive at least 25 years in prison, up to life.

In Ewing v. California, a California court convicted the petitioner of a felony for stealing three golf clubs. Gary Ewing was previously convicted of four serious or violent felonies. The state sentenced him to 25 years to life in prison. The California State Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence.

The Supreme Court ultimately granted a review of the case. The high court concluded that the sentence was constitutional. It ruled that Ewing's case was not one of the rare cases that led to an inference of gross disproportionality.

Dignity

In Trop v. Dulles (1958), the Supreme Court held that a criminal penalty must be in accord with the “dignity of man." The court said this standard is the “basic concept" underlying the Eighth Amendment. The court determined that this standard prevents the government from imposing excessive punishment.

In Trop, the petitioner, Albert Trop, served as a private in the U.S. Army in 1944. The Army placed him in a stockade for discipline. He escaped the stockade and deserted the Army. He willingly surrendered to an officer the day after he escaped. A court-martial convicted Trop of desertion. He was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to three years of hard labor.

In 1952, Trop applied for a passport. The government denied his application, citing the Nationality Act of 1940. Under Section 401(g) of the act, he had lost his citizenship due to his conviction for wartime desertion. Trop brought an action seeking a declaratory judgment that he was still a U.S. citizen despite his conviction.

The Supreme Court held that Section 401(g) violated the Eighth Amendment. The law gave the military “complete discretion to decide who among convicted deserters shall continue to be Americans and who shall be stateless." The court held that stripping a person of their citizenship was a cruel and unusual punishment. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote: "Citizenship is not a license that expires upon misbehavior."

The court noted further that such a punishment is “more primitive than torture." The majority reasoned that revoking citizenship results in a “total destruction" of the person's place in an organized society.

Unnecessary and Wanton Infliction of Pain

The cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment protects criminal convicts from “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain," the Supreme Court ruled in Gregg v. Georgia (1976). It also serves as a check on prison officials to ensure they use acceptable forms of punishment.

In Ingraham v. Wright (1977), two students filed a lawsuit against several Florida public school administrators. At the time, Florida law allowed limited corporal punishment by school staff. School officials could strike students with a wooden paddle. They could usually apply one to five “licks" or blows with the paddle.

The two students alleged the administrators had struck them with paddles as punishment. One student was allegedly struck more than 20 times in a single instance. School officials struck the other student's arms on separate occasions. Following one of these occasions, he could not use his arm fully for one week.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment does not apply to corporal punishment in public schools. The court compared the differences between convicted criminals and schoolchildren. It determined that public schools afford safeguards against the abuses that the Eighth Amendment protects for prisoners. The court also said the state could charge educators who used corporal punishment, finding them liable civilly or criminally.

How to Challenge Prison Conditions

Prisoners are allowed to challenge the conditions of their confinement. To do so, a prisoner may have to show that the institution's officials acted with "deliberate indifference" to the prisoner's rights. This includes showing:

  • That the institution's employees were aware of some danger or risk of harm to an inmate
  • That the employees chose not to take any steps to remedy the problem
  • That the inmate's fundamental rights were violated as a result

Deliberate indifference is a relatively high standard to meet. The inmate must show more than mere negligence by corrections personnel.

In Estelle v. Gamble (1976), the Supreme Court established the “deliberate indifference" standard. A state prisoner, J.W. Gamble, injured his back while performing prison labor. He ultimately brought a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. He claimed state correctional officials violated his constitutional rights. Specifically, he alleged he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment because prison officials inadequately treated his back injury.

The Supreme Court recognized that the government must provide medical care to prisoners. The justices said failure to do so could constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The court concluded that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain." To claim deliberate indifference regarding medical needs, a prisoner must allege “acts or omissions sufficiently harmful to evidence deliberate indifference to serious medical needs."

The court ultimately concluded that the corrections officers did not violate Gamble's rights. Medical personnel examined him 17 times over three months. Gamble's complaint centered on the allegedly inadequate treatment of his back injury.

For example, Gamble said he believed prison medical personnel should have X-rayed his lower back. The court ruled that whether medical personnel should have performed an X-ray is a matter of medical judgment. It is not, however, deliberate indifference or cruel and unusual punishment, the court found.

Excessive Force Claims

One of the claims prisoners can make under the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause is excessive force. However, physical force and restraints are commonplace in a prison setting and may be required to maintain order and safety. In a prison environment, what constitutes "excessive force?"

In Hudson v. McMillian (1992), prison guards beat an inmate while he was handcuffed and shackled in plain view of a supervisor. A question in the case was whether the prisoner had suffered a "significant injury" or whether his injuries were minor, requiring no medical attention. The Supreme Court held that an inmate does not need to show a significant injury — only one that's "de minimis," or unimportant.

The court held that excessive force cases must focus on the application of force. The analysis does not focus on the actual injury. Courts must determine whether the force was "applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm."

Under this standard, then, a successful excessive force case must show that the application of force was:

  • Not in good faith
  • Not part of an effort to restore discipline
  • Based, even in part, on malicious and sadistic intent

If all three elements are met, the use of excessive force constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Exhaust the Administrative Process

Prisoners filing claims of cruel and unusual punishment must do so administratively. They must exhaust their claims through the relevant agencies before filing their case in court. The administrative process differs by state. Generally, it involves the prisoner submitting a form. The form must detail the events at issue and request relief from the prison system.

Common reasons a court will dismiss an inmate's excessive force complaint can include failure to:

  • Include all allegations in their complaint in their original administrative claim form
  • Fully exhaust their claim at each level of review before filing their complaint in court

Filing a post-conviction administrative claim can be challenging. An experienced criminal defense attorney can advise you about your state's administrative process.

Is the Death Penalty Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the death penalty is not inherently cruel and unusual punishment.

A death sentence is perhaps the most controversial criminal penalty in the United States. Proponents of capital punishment argue that it deters or prevents serious crimes. They also say the death penalty is a just penalty for some crimes.

Critics argue that the death penalty has the opposite effect. They claim it brutalizes society, increasing the likelihood of future serious crimes like murder. Critics also say a mature society does not need to sentence someone to death simply out of revenge or justice.

Before 1972, capital punishment in the United States was constitutional. In 1972, however, the Supreme Court decided the case of Furman v. Georgia. A Georgia state law had given a jury complete discretion in sentencing a convicted criminal. The nation's high court ruled that this discretion could result in an arbitrary sentence, violating the Eighth Amendment.

The court ultimately held that punishment can be cruel and unusual if it is one of the following:

  • Too severe for the crime
  • Arbitrary
  • Offensive to society's sense of justice
  • Not more effective than a less severe penalty

The court's ruling in Furman effectively abolished the death penalty in the United States. This lasted for roughly four years — until the court decided the case of Gregg v. Georgia in 1976. In Gregg, the court set out two requirements that state legislatures must meet to reinstate the death penalty:

  1. The states must establish objective criteria to direct and limit the exercise of discretion in capital sentencing and punishment.
  2. The individual defendant's character and criminal record must be taken into account.

Following the Gregg decision, states were able to reinstate the death penalty if their procedures met these requirements. Both requirements are subject to review on appeal.

Among other notable cases regarding the death penalty and their contributions to legal precedent:

  • Coker v. Georgia (1977): Sentencing a convicted rapist to the death penalty is excessive punishment and disproportionate to the crime, therefore violating the Eighth Amendment.
  • Atkins v. Virginia (2002): Executing “mentally retarded" criminals violates the Eighth Amendment because such criminals are less culpable than the average criminal, and the punishment does not advance the purposes of the death penalty.
  • Roper v. Simmons (2005): Sentencing juveniles to the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.

As of 2023, the death penalty could be imposed in 27 states. Of these, however, five were not actively carrying out executions due to governor-imposed moratoriums.

Questions About Cruel and Unusual Punishment? Contact an Attorney

Getting professional assistance from an experienced criminal defense attorney can be very helpful. An experienced attorney can provide you with information regarding:

  • Your Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment
  • Your Fifth and 14th Amendment rights to due process
  • Prison sentences, criminal rights, criminal law, and criminal cases

If you believe you have suffered cruel and unusual punishment, consider contacting an attorney.

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