Cruel and unusual punishment
Cruel and unusual punishment is punishment that causes severe suffering, pain, or humiliation. Many countries have laws against cruel and unusual punishment. There are also international laws and treaties against this type of punishment.
For most of recorded history, the death penalty was often painful on purpose. Severe historical punishments included being burned or boiled to death; cut or torn apart; crushed by stones; sawed in half; crucified; and many other extremely painful methods of execution. Punishments that were not meant to cause death were also often painful on purpose.
The exact words "cruel and unusual punishment" were first used in the English Bill of Rights 1689. In 1791, the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution made "cruel and unusual punishment" illegal in the United States. Seven years later, the British Leeward Islands used the same words in their Slavery Amelioration Act.
Here are some examples of other laws that include protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948
- The European Convention on Human Rights, Article 3 (1950)
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 7 (1966)
- The Constitution of the Marshall Islands (1979)
- Article 2, Section 6 of the Constitution's Bill of Rights bans "cruel and unusual punishment", which it defines as the death penalty; torture; "inhuman and degrading treatment"; and "excessive fines or deprivations."
- The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 12 (1982)
- The Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Article 16 (1984)
- The Constitution of Poland, Article 40 (1997)
- The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, Article 4 (2000)
The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution says that "cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted." However, the Constitution does not define exactly what cruel and unusual punishments are.
In a case called Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S. 238 (1972)), the Supreme Court of the United States decided what questions they would use to figure out whether a punishment was cruel and unusual. Justice William Brennan wrote the opinion in the case. He made four rules about punishments:
- They cannot "be degrading to human dignity" (humiliating). Torture is especially not allowed.
- They cannot be "A severe punishment that is obviously inflicted in wholly arbitrary way"[a]
- They cannot be "A severe punishment that is clearly and totally rejected throughout society."
- They cannot be "severe [and obviously] unnecessary."
In this decision, the Supreme Court set a precedent that if a punishment broke any of these four rules, it would be viewed as "cruel and unusual," and would be illegal under the Constitution.
Categories: Capital punishment | Crime | Human rights | United States Constitution
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