What is Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

The use of taser-like handcuffs have reignited claims over unconstitutional punishments. So, how do we determine what is cruel and unusual?

In the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the founding fathers wrote, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." Ever since, the country has reckoned with what exactly falls under the definition of "cruel and unusual." After all, back in 1790, things like public flogging, getting dunked in water, and even child slavery were tolerated.

From time to time, the U.S. Supreme Court has stepped in to help define where the government stands on the issue. In 1972, Justice William Brennan wrote four guiding principles that specified what types of punishment fell outside the realms of the Constitution. First, "the punishment must not, by its severity, be degrading to human dignity." In addition, punishment cannot be "obviously inflicted in a wholly arbitrary fashion," nor can it be "clearly and totally rejected throughout society." Then, in 1992, the Court prohibited the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" in the treatment of prisoners.

The debate continues today. In June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that a certain controversial drug that was being used for lethal injection in Oklahoma did not fall under "cruel and unusual punishment." In a 5-4 decision, the justices ruled against claims by death-row inmates who were protesting the use of a sedative called midazolam. The drug had garnered national attention after reports of inmates writhing in pain or taking hours to die when the drug was involved.

Learn More:
The 80,000-Volt Handcuffs That Let Cops Shock Prisoners (theatlantic.com)
"What gives an electric jolt as strong as a typical Tase but is designed for prisoners already in police custody rather than suspects not yet arrested?"

How Do Tasers Work? (slate.com)
"Independent investigators will look into last Tuesday's incident on the UCLA campus, in which a student was subjected to five Taser shocks by the university police."

Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Juvenile Death Penalty Evolving Standards of Decency (americanbar.org)
"This statement is among the most recent expressions of a divided U.S. Supreme Court that 14 years earlier narrowly upheld the constitutionality of the right of states to execute juvenile offenders."

Why Originalism Is So Popular (newrepublic.com)
"When members of the House read aloud the Constitution at the start of the legislative session last week, the event was widely regarded as a political stunt."