Taking Dignity Seriously: Excavating the Backdrop of the Eighth Amendment

50 Pages Posted: 11 Jun 2016 Last revised: 20 Jun 2019

See all articles by Meghan J. Ryan

Meghan J. Ryan

Southern Methodist University - Dedman School of Law

Date Written: June 8, 2016


The U.S. punishment system is in turmoil. We have a historically unprecedented number of offenders in prison, and our prisoners are serving longer sentences than in any other country. States are surreptitiously experimenting with formulas for lethal injection cocktails, and some prisoners are suffering from botched executions. Despite this tumult, the Eighth Amendment of our Constitution does place limits on the punishments that may be imposed and how they may be implemented. The difficulty, though, is that the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is a bit of a mess. The Court has been consistent in stating that a focus on offender dignity is at the core of the Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, but there has been virtually no analysis of what this dignity requirement means. This Article takes the first foray into this unexplored landscape and finds that the Constitution demands that the individuality of offenders be considered in imposing and carrying out sentences. While this appears to be a simple concept, it raises significant concerns about several modern-day sentencing practices. Punishments rooted in pure utilitarianism, by neglecting the importance of the individual offender, run afoul of this dignity demand. This sheds doubt on the propriety of some judges’ assertions that defendants’ freestanding innocence claims cannot stand because policy considerations like finality are of paramount importance; an individual offender cannot be ignored purely for the sake of societal goals. For the same reason, the importance of individual dignity should lead us to question statutes supporting only utilitarian aims of punishment. While this raises questions about the constitutionality of pure deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation, these purposes of punishment may be reconceptualized to account for the individual offender. For example, rehabilitation could be reformulated to consider not only the offender’s effects on society when he is returned to the community but also whether the offender’s character has been reformed. Finally, the importance of Eighth Amendment dignity raises questions about the constitutionality of mandatorily imposed punishments, which overlook the importance of individualization in sentencing. If we take seriously the dignity core of the Eighth Amendment, then many of these practices must be reconsidered.

Keywords: Eighth Amendment, cruel and unusual punishment, cruel and unusual, dignity, glossip v. gross, baze v. rees, rehabilitation

Suggested Citation

Ryan, Meghan J., Taking Dignity Seriously: Excavating the Backdrop of the Eighth Amendment (June 8, 2016). University of Illinois Law Review, Vol. 2016, No. 5, 2016, SMU Dedman School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 329, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2792217

Meghan J. Ryan (Contact Author)

Southern Methodist University - Dedman School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 750116
Dallas, TX 75275
United States

HOME PAGE: https://www.smu.edu/Law/Faculty/Profiles/Ryan-Meghan-J

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