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What is 'cruel and unusual'?

  1. Oct 5, 2013 #1
    Do we really know what cruel and unusual actually is? I don't think so.

    Assume for a moment that if we took a convicted criminal who without any doubt (not just reasonable) committed a crime worthy of death, like a mass murderer, and we tortured and executed him on prime time TV, it would actually deter other people from doing the same thing. It's pretty widely agreed that to take someone and do that to them on prime time TV is cruel and unusual punishment. Instead we basically hide punishment and it is generally not harsh, at least not harsh enough to stop crime.

    My question is which is more cruel and unusual, to inflict a punishment like I described on someone or to not do it and be guaranteed that many other innocent people will become victims?

    I would argue it's more cruel and unusual to future victims to not inflict those kinds of punishments on certain deserving souls. If not inflicting a punishment, no matter how harsh, guarantees more victims, then not inflicting that punishment is cruel and unusual. People like Dharmer, McVeigh, Bin Laden, Hitler, Son of Sam, Kazinsky, Stalin, that jerk that imprisoned those 3 girls and school shooters should get that kind of punishment, instead others will keep doing the same things.
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  3. Oct 5, 2013 #2


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    Cruel and unusual are somewhat defined by societal norms. In some parts of the world, stoning to death is considered fairly usual but in the USA it would be looked at as totally unusual (an unacceptable).

    Severe punishment has, I believe, been shown to be of very limited effectiveness and what you suggest strikes me as (1) useless and (2) putting society in the same category of awfulness as what is being punished.
  4. Oct 5, 2013 #3


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    Clearly you can stop any particular individual reoffending by use of the death penalty or whole-life imprisonment, but human history over the last say 5,000 years doesn't give much evidence that this actually reduces crime rates.

    There will always somebody else who thinks they are smart enough not to get caught, or so dumb that they don't think at all.

    That said, the current system could probably be made to work cheaper without being less effective. On one of my sessions of jury service in the UK, we convicted somebody of threatening two police officers with knives - and then learned that he had previous convictions for 180 (yup, one hundred and eighty) similar offenses! I don't expect our sending him to jail for another few weeks was going to change that pattern of behavior.
  5. Oct 5, 2013 #4
    I do not recall Stalin being convicted of a crime, let alone being charged of, so by including him in your list of despicable individuals, even if his actions are now considered controversial, your logic seems to break down at that point, since it thus becomes apparant that there will be a difficulty in choosing which crime is heinous to warrant severe punishment as you describe, and can the individual or group be apprehended to account for any legal action taken against them, and who will be the "international" policeman to carry out the apprehension and prosecution.
  6. Oct 5, 2013 #5


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    Justice William Brennan wrote the definitive definition in the US, at least according to Wikipedia:
    The point is twofold. One, that society does not sink to the level of the people it is claiming are worthy of punishment. Two, it's ineffective for the reasons AlephZero noted. The mistake in your thinking is assuming that something that would deter you (thinking it through in cold blood) would deter a monster of the kind you are railing against. They're probably not thinking in terms of cost-benefit analyses when they decide to do what they do.
  7. Oct 5, 2013 #6
    Obviously what is considered cruel and unusual changes over time. The pillory was in use in the United States at the time the Constitution was written and its last recorded use was in Delaware in 1901. Now the pillory would definitely be considered cruel and unusual.

    Adding to what AlephZero said, there are some people who commit crimes without regard to whether they will be caught or not, but because they feel justified in committing the crime. The threat of punishment does not deter those people either. Some of the crimes that would fall into this category are, civil disobedience, revenge, and even husbands battering their wives. (I'm guessing that if you questioned the husbands about why they did it, they most common answer you'd get is, "They deserved it.")
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2013
  8. Oct 5, 2013 #7


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    If tit-for-tat punishment worked we would have solved criminality thousands of years ago. The fact is that aside from convicting the wrong individual and the system not working as a deterrent hurting people has never been a good way of ensuring compliance. It's more likely that if you torture someone they will have an even greater incentive to get back at you.

    All that is aside from the fact that a system that advocates torture is absolutely deplorable and no better than the people it is attempting to deter.
  9. Oct 5, 2013 #8
    We know from history that it doesn`t matter how cruel or vicious the punishment for the crime is, that crime will still be committed many times by other people even after they are aware of the punishment they will receive.
  10. Oct 6, 2013 #9
    All these replies that harsh punishment doesn't reduce crime ignore the fact that the countries with the harshest punishments have much lower crime rates than the US for those crimes that actually get what we might call cruel and unusual.

    What's more, I disagree with your conclusions. Basically all you people are saying fear of punishment isn't a deterrent. That's baloney. If Loughner, the scum that shot Giffords and killed a kid, was still being tortured (as he deserves) on TV do you really think the Sandy Hook shooting would have occurred? Would they have done that knowing they could be suffering for months for their crime just like the guy they can tune in to at any time and watch as he gets punishment? Sure they can decide to commit suicide after their crime but who can ever be sure they are really willing to kill themselves or will get the chance?

    I know this much, what I suggest certainly wouldn't increase crime and would definitely make some people think twice about doing something horrendous. Our leniency and morals causes new victims, it's actually immoral.
  11. Oct 6, 2013 #10


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    You are still assuming rationality on the part of people who commit irrational actions. How do you know that public torture would have dissuaded subsequent killers? Are there interviews with them? Systematic studies? Or are you just assuming that because it would deter you, it would deter the type of person who commits mass murder?

    Where is the data to support your assertion that crime rates are lower in countries with more draconian punishment regimes? Please provide a link so we may assess.

    Finally, let's say torture were legalised and televised. Would you watch it, and why?
  12. Oct 6, 2013 #11


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    SlimSalabim please post links to sources that back up your claim that countries with corporal punishments have lower crime rates than those without. Remember that the United States is only one country amongst many that does not practice corporal punishment.
  13. Oct 6, 2013 #12


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    http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/deterrence%20briefing%20.pdf [Broken]

    This is a survey of studies which have consistently shown that increasing the severity of punishment has little effect on deterrence, but increasing the chance that someone who commits a crime gets caught has a significant deterrence.

    And Slim, if you think someone who plans out a murder-suicide spree is going to be deterred because they might chicken out on the suicide part and end up getting tortured because of it, I think you are trying to pidgeonhole their mindsets into something that you can understand. I find it very likely that Sandy Hook would have occurred regardless of what punishment other mass shooters received.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  14. Oct 7, 2013 #13


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    In olden days, traitors would first be hanged by the neck, but let down before death occurred. Then, their bellies would be sliced open, and their entrails withdrawn and burned before the prisoner's eyes. Afterwards, four horses, one for each limb, were tied to the accused and then set off at a gallop. This, I think, should give one an insight into the term 'cruel and unusual'.

  15. Oct 7, 2013 #14
    Would I watch it? Maybe once out of curiosity. But I'm not ever going to do anything that would incur that punishment so the message is lost on me. If someone was planning to do something that they knew WOULD incur that punishment, they are the ones who will watch and who are the ones we want to watch. It wouldn't be much of a deterrent if they didn't.

    There are a billion people in China. They execute people there for crimes quickly and efficiently. Do I need to quote sources to say their per capita crime rate is much lower than ours? The only region with a higher per capita murder rate than the americas is africa (where the police, authority and sure punishment are almost non-existent). Asia, oceania and europe have about 1/5 our rate. The world as a whole has half our rate.

    Here is another example. Our laws against prostitution not only cause horrors to be done to prostitutes, but probably contribute significantly to rape and murder of them and rape of others. Do I have a study to back that up? No. No one has interviewed rapists and asked them if they would have raped if prostitution was legal, affordable and available. But I would not hesitate to state that it will and that our laws against prostitution are a form of cruel and unusual punishment because of the effects of the law.
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2013
  16. Oct 7, 2013 #15


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    Capital punishment and corporal punishment are not the same and by point out that Europe has far lower crime rates even though it doesn't practice either rather defeats your points.

    You were asked for sources and couldn't provide any. That's not good enough for this site so this thread is done.
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