A key provision of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting the most shockingly barbarous punishments and conditions of incarceration.
Borrowing from the English Bill of Rights of 1688, the Framers of the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791) included in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution a prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Like so much else in the Constitution, and particularly in the Bill of Rights, the meaning, scope, and limitations of these figurative words were left to be determined by the Supreme Court. The results have been inconsistent, conflicting, and enigmatic.
The Court has struggled over whether the prohibition sets absolute and immutable standards that persist over time or instead expresses a goal of proportionality that varies depending on the circumstances. Consequently, the body of Court decisions interpreting the prohibition suffers from a lack of cohesion, allowing succeeding justices to fill the words with their own values and sensibilities.
During its first century, the Court paid scant attention to the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In 1910 the Court held, in Weems v. United States
It was not until the 1970’s that the Court dwelt seriously on the prohibition, most prominently in the context of the death penalty. In Furman v. Georgia
However, four years later in Gregg v. Georgia
In noncapital cases, the Court has sent mixed signals. In Rummel v. Estelle
Inevitably, the Court will continue to grapple with the dilemma of giving meaning to one of the most opaque provisions in the Bill of Rights.
Brennan, William J., Jr.
Furman v. Georgia
Gregg v. Georgia
Rummel v. Estelle
Solem v. Helm
Weems v. United States