Cruel & Unusual Punishment
Under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, no person shall be required to pay excessive bail or fines, nor endure any cruel and unusual punishment. If an individual is convicted of a crime and given a criminal sentence that is grossly disproportionate to the underlying offense, the sentence may be considered cruel and unusual punishment.
Sentences that qualify as cruel and unusual punishment are unconstitutional and must be vacated or reversed on appeal.
The three factors that Courts consider to qualify as cruel and unusual punishment
To determine if a criminal sentence is considered grossly disproportionate to the underlying offense, courts consider three factors:
- (1) the gravity of the crime in comparison to the harshness of the penalty
- (2) the sentences imposed upon other similarly situated defendants in the same jurisdiction convicted of the same or similar offenses
- (3) sentenced imposed upon other defendants who were convicted of the same or similar crime in other jurisdictions
If one the first factor is considered, the court is not required to further the analysis by visiting the second and third factors.
At what stages of the criminal case can a defendant challenge a sentence?
Defendants seeking to challenge a sentence as cruel and unusual in violation of the constitution may do so at various stages of a case.
- First, the challenge may be made in the form of a motion for reconsideration, to the judge or court that imposed the sentence.
- Second, the claim of cruel and unusual punishment may be raised on appeal, after sentence is adjudged in the trial court.
- Third and finally, this challenge to the criminal sentence may also be made after the appeal is adjudicated, in the form of a petition for post-conviction relief.
The burden of establishing cruel and unusual punishment is upon the defendant, as the moving party, to show that the criminal sentence imposed is grossly disproportionate to the convicted offense. This is a very high burden.
For example, in the federal case of United States v. Raiche, 50 F.4th 279, 280 (1st Cir. 2022), the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed an eighty-year sentence for a defendant who was convicted of a forty-one-count indictment alleging child pornography offenses.
In its reasoning, the Raiche court first looked at the gravity of the offense, citing congressional views of child pornography offenses calling for increased mandated minimum jail sentences for convicted offenses.
Also, while no physical abuse may occur with this type of crime, Congress views that the sexual abuse of a child can inflict injuries that may run deeper and last longer than any physical injuries. Given the seriousness of the crime, the court held that the imposed punishment was disproportionate to convicted offenses and affirmed the sentence without even visiting the remaining two factors in the cruel and unusual punishment analysis.
If you have questions or concerns about a criminal sentence and whether it runs afoul of the Eighth Amendment, contact the Law Office of John L. Calcagni III, Inc. for a free consultation at (401) 351-5100.