Cruel and unusual punishment

phrase describing punishment that is considered unacceptable due to the suffering, pain, or humiliation it inflicts on the person subjected to it

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 human rights laws and treaties against this type of punishment as well as torture.



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.[1] 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.

United States


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.[10] Justice William Brennan wrote the opinion in the case. He made four rules about punishments:[11]

  • 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.

  1. An example of "arbitrary" punishment would be: Five people commit the same crime. The facts of each case are exactly the same. Some get the death penalty while others get short prison terms. They have gotten different punishments for the same crime, for no legal reason; that is arbitrary punishment.


  1. The Death Penalty: Revenge Is the Mother of Invention Archived 2013-08-28 at the Wayback Machine. (January 24, 1983). TIME. TIME Inc. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights". United Nations. December 10, 1948. Archived from the original on May 22, 2019. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  3. "Details of Treaty No. 005: Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms". Treaty Office. Council of Europe. 1950. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  4. "International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights". Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. United Nations. December 16, 1966. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Constitution of the Republic of the Marshall Islands" (PDF). Embassy of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. RMI Embassy. May 1, 1979. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 22, 2010. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  6. "Constitution Act, 1982 – Part I: Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms". Justice Laws Website. Government of Canada. 1982. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  7. "Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment". Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. United Nations. December 10, 1984. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  8. "The Constitution of the Republic of Poland, Chapter II: The Freedoms, Rights and Obligations of Persons and Citizens". SEJM. Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej. April 2, 1997. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  9. "EU Charter of Fundamental Rights". Justice: Building a European Area of Justice. European Commission. 2000. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  10. Palmer, Jr., Louis J. (July 1999). Organ Transplants from Executed Prisoners: An Argument for the Creation of Death Sentence Organ Removal Statutes. Mcfarland & Co, Inc. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-7864-0673-9.
  11. 408 U.S. 238 (1972)