8th Amendment Limitations on Sentencing

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What are Limitations on Sentencing?

In a criminal case, a judge has much discretion to prescribe a legal punishments and penalties for defendants.  Even so, defendants there are several constitutional principles that protect defendants from excessively harsh or unusual punishments.  Most of these limitations on criminal sentencing can be found in the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

The 8th Amendment states that in a criminal case:

Supreme Court rulings have also held that criminal sentences that are barbarous, outrageous, inhumane, or that shock the social consciousness are unconstitutional. 

There are also several state laws that protect criminal defendants by limiting sentences to those which are proportional to the crime committed.  These protections may vary according to state; however, the constitutional limitations mentioned above must be followed in every state.

How does the 8th Amendment affect Sentencing?

The various sentencing provisions found in the 8th Amendment have greatly impacted the way that judges can issue a sentence.  For example, the Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause has been the subject of much debate and litigation.  The limitations on cruel and unusual punishment require that criminal sentences be in proportion to the severity of the crime committed.  Criminal punishments that are disproportionate to the crime will likely be overturned on appeal.

An example of a punishment that is not fitting for the crime is where a judge prescribes the death penalty for kidnapping.  Although kidnapping is a very serious crime, the nature of kidnapping does not justify the death penalty.  Thus, the Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause is commonly applied in cases involving capital punishment. 

However, some portions of the 8th Amendment tend to have less pronounced effects on criminal sentencing.  For example, the prohibition on Excessive Fines can sometimes be difficult to enforce.  In order for a fine to be overturned, the defendant must prove that:

Practically speaking, it can sometimes be more expensive to appeal a fine than to simply pay the fine itself.  However, if the defendant can prove the elements mentioned above, then they can probably have the fine overturned based on the Excessive Fines clause. 

Can an Unfair Sentence be Appealed?

Under certain circumstances, an unfair criminal sentence can sometimes be appealed.  Criminal defendants have the right to appeal their case based on a legal or procedural matter.  With regards to an unfair or unconstitutional sentence, a defendant will likely be more successful on appeal if they can provide a solid basis of proof. 

For example, defendant might have success on appeal if they can prove that the sentence was the result of the wrong law being applied, or if it was the result of insufficient evidence.  A retrial may be available if the original trial contained more serious errors, such as attorney misconduct, or a hung jury.      

Do I need a Lawyer for Limitations on Criminal Sentences?

In any criminal case, the defendant always has the right to an attorney.  You should speak with an experienced criminal lawyer if you believe that a criminal sentence was unconstitutional in any way.  Your lawyer can assist you in filing for an appeal, and will be able to provide further representation during court hearings. 

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Last Modified: 03-11-2014 11:29 AM PDT

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