The Eighth Amendment as a Warrant Against Undeserved Punishment

Scott Howe

Chapman University - School of Law

November 11, 2013

William & Mary Bill of Rights, Vol. 22, p. 91, 2013
Chapman University Law Research Paper No. 13-14

Should the Eighth Amendment prohibit all undeserved criminal convictions and punishments? There are grounds to argue that it must. Correlation between the level of deserts of the accused and the severity of the sanction represents the very idea of justice to most of us. We want to believe that those branded as criminals deserve blame for their conduct and that they deserve all of the punishments that they receive. A deserts limitation is also key to explaining the decisions in which the Supreme Court has rejected convictions or punishments as disproportional, including several major rulings in the new millennium. Yet, this view of the Eighth Amendment challenges many current criminal-law doctrines and sentencing practices that favor crime prevention over retributive limits. Mistake-of-law doctrine, felony-murder rules and mandatory-minimum sentencing laws are only a few examples. Why have these laws and practices survived? One answer is that the Supreme Court has largely limited proportionality relief to a few narrow problems involving the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole, and it has avoided openly endorsing the deserts limitation even in cases in which defendants have prevailed. Yet, this Article presents a deeper explanation. I point to four reasons why the doctrine must remain severely stunted in relation to its animating principle. I am to clarify both what the Eighth Amendment reveals about the kind of people we want to be and why the Supreme Court is not able to force us to live up to the aspiration.

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Date posted: November 12, 2013  

Suggested Citation

Howe, Scott, The Eighth Amendment as a Warrant Against Undeserved Punishment (November 11, 2013). William & Mary Bill of Rights, Vol. 22, p. 91, 2013; Chapman University Law Research Paper No. 13-14. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2353082

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Scott Howe (Contact Author)
Chapman University - School of Law ( email )
One University Drive
Orange, CA 92866-1099
United States
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