Criminal Law

Criminal Sentencing: Must the Punishment Fit the Crime?

By John McCurley, Attorney
What the law says about the relationship that a punishment must bear to the severity of the crime committed.

Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does is say a punishment must fit the crime. But a similar concept comes from the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the ban on cruel and unusual punishment as forbidding the government from imposing a criminal sentence that’s disproportionate to the crime committed. In practice, however, the Supreme Court has given the government (state and federal) a great deal of latitude in deciding the appropriate level of severity in criminal sentencing.

This article gives an overview of how the Supreme Court determines whether a criminal sentence is so excessive that it violates the constitution and some specific instances where the court has found a sentence unconstitutional.

(Note that this article is about the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Most state constitutions also have cruel and unusual punishment bans, some of which are more protective of criminal defendants than federal law.)

The Analysis

The prevailing view in the U.S. Supreme Court—though not all the justices on the court agree—is that “evolving standards of decency” should guide the determination of whether a sentence is cruel and unusual. This approach recognizes public opinion about what’s an acceptable punishment changes over time. In other words, many punishments that may have been palatable when the Eighth Amendment was ratified in 1791 would likely offend modern sensibilities.

In deciding whether a sentence comports with current standards of decency, the Supreme Court looks to factors like:

  • the gravity of the offense the defendant committed
  • individual characteristics of the offender such as age, intellectual capacity, and criminal history
  • the nature of the punishment
  • the sentences for other crimes in the state where the offense occurred, and
  • how other states punish the crime the defendant was convicted of.

However, a punishment is unconstitutional only if inherently barbaric or grossly excessive. This standard makes courts reluctant to strike down a sentence except in the most extreme circumstances.

(Read more about the history and meaning of the restriction on cruel and unusual punishment.)

Death Penalty

Many defendants condemned to death row have argued the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s restriction against cruel and unusual punishment. But thus far, the Supreme Court has declined to find capital punishment categorically unconstitutional. The court has, however, found death sentences invalid in certain instances. The high court has held death sentences to be cruel and unusual in cases where:

  • the death penalty was imposed for a non-homicide offense
  • the offender was under 18 years old when committing the offense, or
  • the offender was intellectually disabled.

As public support for capital punishment continues to wane, abolitionists are hopeful that one day the Supreme Court will do away with the death penalty altogether.

(Learn more about capital punishment.)

Juvenile Cases

In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the Supreme Court addressed cruel and unusual punishment in the context of juvenile sentencing. In a nutshell, the court concluded that the Eighth Amendment prohibits sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole (called “LWOP” for short) for non-homicide crimes.

In reaching its decision, the court noted that—while the laws of many jurisdictions authorized LWOP for juvenile non-homicide offenders—actual sentencing practices showed LWOP was rarely imposed for minors convicted of non-homicide crimes. The court also placed great emphasis on the limited moral culpability of underage offenders. The court explained that, as compared to adults, minors have a “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility.”

The court, however, was careful to point out that homicide offenses are qualitatively different than other crimes. So the Graham decision is limited to non-homicide cases. In other words, Graham doesn’t block states from imposing LWOP for juveniles convicted of murder or manslaughter.

Questions for an Attorney

  • Does California’s three-strikes law violate the Eighth Amendment if the third strike is a minor, nonviolent crime?
  • Is it unconstitutional if a juvenile offender is sentenced on a non-homicide offense to a term that’s so long that it’s the functional equivalent of a life sentence?
  • Do federal mandatory minimums for drug offenses violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment?

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