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cruel and unusual punishmentWhen studying law, students often encounter the term “cruel and unusual punishment.” It is used in the VIII amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which says that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.” In fact, this amendment is needed to guarantee an individual’s rights enshrined in the Constitution even after a person has been accused of committing a crime and convicted. However, since it is awkward out of context, and for better understanding, the meaning of the term “cruel and unusual punishment” should be analyzed and defined more clearly.

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There is no universal definition for the term “cruel and unusual punishment.” Generally, any punishment that can be seen as inhumane and violates human dignity can fall under this category; for example, in 1995, a federal court in Massachusetts considered convicts held in a 150-year-old prison to be treated in a humiliating way and found their rights being infringed upon (Findlaw). Meanwhile, in times when the term “cruel and unusual punishment” was introduced, much harsher forms of punishment than today were practiced around Europe and even the U.S.: starting from whipping and banishment for larceny, and ending up with crucifixion or breaking on the wheel (Nolo). The latter, though, was always seen by American courts as excessive and inherently cruel.

In order to come up with a concrete definition, the U.S. Supreme Court has offered to consider a form of punishment as cruel and unusual depending on the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society (Rutherford Institute).” In other words, considering that each period of time in societal life is remarkable with its dominating values and norms of morals that are constantly changing, the understanding of what is cruel and unusual may differ. According to the Free Dictionary, cruel and unusual punishment is a penalty which is torturing, or degrading, such which is not known to the common law or any fine, penalty, confinement, or treatment that is so disproportionate to the offense as to shock the moral sense of the community (Free Dictionary).

Among the examples of cruel and unusual punishments (found in American courts), one could possibly name: execution of those who are insane or mentally retarded; a 56-year term for forging checks totaling less than $500; handcuffing a prisoner to a horizontal bar exposed to the sun for several hours; criminal prosecution of a homeless or chronic alcoholic person for public intoxication, and other examples from real court practices (Nolo).

Cruel and unusual punishment is mentioned in the VIII amendment of the U.S. Constitution; its purposed amendment is to guarantee an individual’s rights and protect their dignity even after conviction. A punishment can be classified as cruel and unusual depending on the current standards of dignity, adopted in a society; in general, this is a punishment that is disproportionate to the offense and shocks the moral sense of the community.


“Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” Findlaw. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. <>.

“The Meaning of Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. <>.

“Amendment VIII: Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” The Rutherford Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.<>.

“Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” The Free Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. <>.

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