cruel and unusual punishment

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Cruel and unusual punishment is a phrase mentioned in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. However, the Constitution does not give more guidance than that, and so courts--and particularly the Supreme Court--have heard a number of cases which have given guidance to the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.


Proportionality of Sentence

In Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983), the Supreme Court held that a sentence may not be disproportionate to the crime committed, regardless of whether the crime is a felony or a misdemeanor. To measure proportionality, the court must look at several factors. These factors include: 

  • The severity of the offense
  • The harshness of the penalty
  • The sentences imposed on others within the same jurisdiction
  • The sentences imposed on others in different jurisdictions.

The Supreme Court later overturned this prohibition on disproportionate sentences in Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991), but stated, in dicta, that in extreme cases, a disproportionate sentence could violate the Eighth Amendment. This opinion was later affirmed in Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003), holding that a gross proportionality requirement is only available in “exceedingly rare” and “extreme cases.”

Juvenile Non-Homicide Offenders

The Supreme Court does consider age when determining the constitutionality of imprisonment. In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the Supreme Court held that, for juvenile non-homicide offenders, it is unconstitutional for a court to assign life imprisonment without parole. Further, if a court does impose a life sentence, it must also provide the offender with a "realistic opportunity to obtain release."

Juvenile Homicide Offenders

In Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), the Court expanded on Graham, holding that life imprisonment without parole is unconstitutional for juvenile homicide offenders.

Prison Beatings

In Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977), the Supreme Court stated that the “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. This standard was refined in Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986), in which the Supreme Court stated that action that may seem like an unconstitutional “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” may be constitutional, if the infliction of pain is done in a good-faith effort to restore discipline, rather than done maliciously to cause harm.

Using this standard, the Supreme Court found that a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment right was violated in Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002). The prisoner was handcuffed to a hitching post for 7 hours, taunted, and denied bathroom breaks. The court reasoned that this treatment exceeded what was necessary to restore order.

In Hudson v McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992), the Supreme Court held that a prisoner does not need to experience significant injury by prison guards in order to suffer an Eighth Amendment violation. Rather, if the guards act maliciously and sadistically to punish the prisoner, then that punishment would be cruel and unusual, and would accordingly violate the Eighth Amendment.

Conditions of Confinement

Deliberate Indifference

In Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), the Supreme Court established that the Eighth Amendment may be violated due to factors related to a prisoner's confinement. A prison guard's deliberate indifference to a prisoner's serious illness or injury would constitute cruel and unusual punishment which would violate the Eighth Amendment.


In Brown v. Plata, 131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011), the Court held that prison overcrowding in California was unconstitutional because the living conditions resulted in medical care violations. The Court reasoned that prisoners would suffer and could die if they did not receive adequate medical care.

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]