The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishments to criminal defendants who have been convicted of a crime. This means that the government cannot impose a penalty that is grossly disproportionate to the seriousness of the offense.

What Are Limitations on Sentencing?

In a criminal case, a judge has discretion in prescribing legal punishments and penalties for defendants. However, 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:

  • Excessive bail shall not be required
  • Excessive fines shall not be imposed
  • Cruel and unusual punishment shall not be inflicted

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 each 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.

The types of penalties that have been an issue during the sentencing stage are:

  • Death Penalty for Murder: The death penalty may be imposed after the prosecutor has given the jury all the presented evidence to find the defendant guilty of murder. The defendant can only be imposed death penalty for murder if there was an intent to kill and the defendant did the actual killing. Someone who did not have the intent to kill or did not do the actual killing cannot be imposed the death penalty.
  • Death Penalty for Kidnapping or Rape: The death penalty is prohibited for the crime of rape or kidnapping if the rape was neither intended to result in death or the victim did not actually die as a result of the rape.
  • Felony Murder Rule: A defendant cannot be imposed the death penalty for death that was part of a inherently dangerous felony unless the felony murderer’s participation in the felony was major and he acted with reckless indifference to value human life.
  • Insane Defendant: The Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of the death penalty to defendants who are insane, even if they were sane at the time of the crime.
  • Minors: Anyone under the age of 18 cannot be imposed the death penalty.
  • Excessive Fines: The fine that the defendant is given must fit the crime that the defendant is charged with and cannot be excessive. A fine is excessive if:
    • The fine was imposed in a manner that was arbitrary or capricious;
    • The fine was so grossly excessive that it amounted to a deprivation of property in violation of due process; or
    • Other states do not impose such a fine to the crime charged.

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 a 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.