What is Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
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  • Last Modified Date: 25 January 2020
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Cruel and unusual punishment is a punishment which is either excessive, given the crime, or cruel, given the standards of society. The standard for what makes a punishment cruel and unusual has evolved considerably and continues to evolve as social norms and morals change. People who are sentenced or subjected to this type of punishment can appeal on the grounds that they have not been given fair treatment in the legal system. Appeals which reach the highest court in the land may establish new precedents which will shape the approach to sentencing in the future.

The concept of outlawing cruel and unusual punishment can be seen in the English Bill of Rights, written in 1689. This idea was adopted by many English colonies and can be seen enshrined in the United States Constitution in the Eighth Amendment, as well as in charters from the United Nations and the European Union. The widespread adoption of legal language specifically forbidding punishments that are cruel and unusual demonstrates that many people and their governments believe that unreasonable penal practices violate human rights and common decency.


Torture is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Likewise, punishments which are deemed barbarous or degrading, such as caning or tarring and feathering, may also be deemed cruel and unusual. Capital punishment has been a topic of dispute, with some countries believing that it is inhumane while others do not, but it is generally agreed that extreme forms of execution, such as burning at the stake, stoning, and crucifixion are cruel and unusual. There is also argument about what kinds of cases merit the death penalty; some countries execute people for drug offenses or rape, for example, while others limit the death penalty to cases of murder.

Physical abuse is not necessary to meet the standard of cruel and unusual punishment. Psychological abuse of prisoners is considered a form, as are sentences which are unreasonable in respect to the crime someone has committed. A person who receives a life sentence for stealing a crate of oranges, for example, can argue that this is cruel and unusual punishment and appeal for a modification of the sentence.

As social standards change, so does the definition of cruel and unusual punishment. At one time, for example, many nations treated teenagers like adults in the eyes of the law. Today, actions such as executing 16-year-olds are believed to be cruel and unusual. Likewise, practices such as cutting off hands and ears or branding people in punishment for theft were once acceptable, and this is no longer the case in most places.


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