(Un)Constitutional Punishments: Eighth Amendment Silos, Penological Purposes, and People's 'Ruin'
The Yale Law Journal Forum, January 3 , 2020
51 Pages Posted: 27 Jan 2020 Last revised: 18 Sep 2020
Date Written: January 3, 2020
In 2019, all Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in Timbs v. Indiana that the Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines applied to the states. The Court’s opinion discussed the Excessive Fines Clause’s “venerable lineage” and termed its protections “fundamental.” Justice Thomas, concurring, wrote that the English prohibition against excessive fines aimed to insulate citizens from what historians called “ruinous fines.”
This Essay puts Timbs into the context of the Court’s search for metrics to assess the legitimacy of governments’ choices about punishment. In and after the 1960s, as convicted and incarcerated people asserted that constitutional law constrained sovereign powers, the Court repeatedly encountered challenges to punishment. I bring together lines of cases that have sat in doctrinal silos to show the links between the concerns animating judicial limits on sentencing and judicial recognition of incarcerated people’s rights to safety, sanitation, food, medical care, access to courts, and religious observance. I argue that this body of law, produced through convicted individuals’ insistence that they were entitled to constitutional protection, should be read to constitute a nascent an-ti-ruination principle that all branches of government need to implement.
Keywords: Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Excessive Fines, Prisoners Rights, Sentencing, Anti-Ruination Principle, Constitutional Interpretation, Penological Purposes, Equal Protection, Indigency, Conditions of Confinement, Incorporation, Timbs v. Indiana
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