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What is Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

Handcuffed hands of a prisoner behind the bars of a prison

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from inflicting “cruel and unusual punishment” on criminal defendants. State constitutions likewise prohibit the use of cruel and unusual punishment. But what does that actually mean under the law? What sorts of punishments are allowed, and which are prohibited? Does it depend entirely on the type of punishment, or do the nature of the crime and the defendant factor in? To learn about cruel and unusual punishment under United States law, read on. If you have been arrested or charged with a crime in New York City or the Hudson Valley, call a dedicated New York criminal defense lawyer for assistance.

“Cruel and Unusual” is an Evolving Term

The Supreme Court has acknowledged that the term “cruel and usual” is, standalone, relatively vague. There is no clear definition in the U.S. Constitution, leaving it up to the courts and other officials to decide in a given circumstance if punishment is actually cruel and unusual. Most courts have basically read out the word “unusual,” focusing instead on the word “cruel.” Courts also acknowledge that society’s understanding of “cruel and unusual” changes over time. As a result, we generally look to Supreme Court precedent to establish what sorts of penalties and punishments are unconstitutional.

Whether a punishment is unconstitutional depends on a number of factors, including the nature of the punishment, the length of the punishment (i.e., the term of incarceration), the nature of the crime committed, and the nature of the defendant (age, mental capacity, etc.). A punishment may be unconstitutional if it is grossly disproportionate to the crime, for example, or the punishment may be unconstitutional as applied to certain types of defendants. Some punishments are unlawful no matter the circumstance.

Types of Punishments That Are Cruel and Unusual

Some forms of punishment are unconstitutional regardless of the crime. Torture, drawing and quartering, public dissection, cutting off a limb, burning a defendant alive, disembowelment, crucifixion, and other types of torture or slow death are not permitted in the United States.

Chemical castration has not yet been deemed unconstitutional, and several states continue to have laws with chemical castration as punishment. There is, however, a strong argument that such punishment would not withstand constitutional scrutiny nowadays.

Is the Death Penalty “Cruel and Unusual”?

If torture and various types of execution are unconstitutional, it would seem to follow that execution in any form is “cruel and unusual.” The United States, unlike most other western democracies, has not yet reached that decision. The Supreme Court has yet to declare that the death penalty is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, at least as a general matter.

The death penalty has been declared unconstitutional for juveniles, however, as well as for defendants declared mentally insane. Capital punishment has also been declared unconstitutional for any crime against an individual that does not result in the death of the victim. The federal statutes punishing the crimes of espionage and treason include the possibility of capital punishment, although no one is on death row for these crimes and it is not clear that the death sentence would withstand constitutional scrutiny if no death was caused by the crime.

States have their own interpretations of cruel and unusual per state constitutions, as well. A New York Court of Appeals decision found the death penalty unconstitutional under the state’s constitution, and, in 2007, the death penalty was officially abolished under New York State law.

Is a Term of Imprisonment Ever “Cruel and Unusual”?

Imprisonment is generally not considered cruel and unusual. But, the Eighth Amendment does prohibit punishments that are excessive in light of the crime. Whether a specific punishment is so excessive as to be cruel and unusual may depend on the specific crime committed, rather than based on a general rule. Courts have held, for example, that a 56-year prison term for forging checks totaling less than $500 is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.

Additionally, in 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court held that a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional when the defendant is a juvenile. No defendant whose offense was committed while they were under the age of 18 can be sentenced to mandatory life without parole, regardless of the crime they committed.

Cruel and Unusual Also Applies to Prison Conditions

It is worth noting that inmates may have constitutional claims concerning the conditions of imprisonment, even if their imposed term was not itself deemed unconstitutional. Prisoners deprived of food, water, medicine, air conditioning, heat, sanitation, or medical attention could have a claim that they are being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, as might prisoners who are abused or assaulted by prison guards.

Trusted, Effective Legal Help With a Hudson Valley Arrest

If you have been arrested or charged with a misdemeanor or felony in New York, call Dupée & Monroe, P.C., to get help from a dedicated criminal defense lawyer. From our offices in Goshen, we represent clients charged with all manner of criminal offenses in Orange County and throughout the Hudson Valley.

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