Legal Dictionary

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Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Cruel and unusual punishment refers to punishment that fails to meet social decency standards – it is overly painful, torturous, degrading, or humiliating (e.g., disemboweling, beheading, public dissecting and burning alive) or is grossly disproportionate to the crime committed. For example, the Supreme Court, in Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977) found the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment for the rape of an adult woman – death was disproportionate to the crime.

California's Three Strikes Law has resulted in some prison sentences being ruled cruel and unusual punishment, for example, where a defendant is charged with petty theft, but because of two prior convictions gets a sentence of life imprisonment. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment.