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What is Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

Updated on February 6, 2010

Cruel and Unusual Punishment is prohibited by the 8th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution and by most state constitutions. The prohibition, first appearing in the English Bill of Rights (1689), became part of the American Constitution in 1791. It has been interpreted to bar unusually cruel methods of punishment, such as torture or loss of citizenship, that are inconsistent with society's evolving concepts of human dignity.

It has also been interpreted to bar punishments that are excessive in relation to the offense. Thus the Supreme Court has struck down a 54-year prison sentence for making 307 illegal sales of liquor; a sentence of 15 years at hard labor in chains and accessory civil penalties for life for falsifying an official document as to the disposition of a small sum of money; and a statute providing prison sentences for narcotics addiction.


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