Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 8 (2002)

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Cite as: 536 U. S. 304 (2002)

Opinion of the Court


The Eighth Amendment succinctly prohibits "[e]xcessive" sanctions. It provides: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." In Weems v. United States, 217 U. S. 349 (1910), we held that a punishment of 12 years jailed in irons at hard and painful labor for the crime of falsifying records was excessive. We explained "that it is a precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to [the] offense." Id., at 367. We have repeatedly applied this proportionality precept in later cases interpreting the Eighth Amendment. See Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U. S. 957, 997-998 (1991) (Kennedy, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment); see also id., at 1009-1011 (White, J., dissenting).7 Thus, even though "imprisonment for ninety days is not, in the abstract, a punishment which is either cruel or unusual," it may not be imposed as a penalty for "the 'status' of narcotic addiction," Robinson v. California, 370 U. S. 660, 666-667 (1962), because such a sanction would be excessive. As Justice Stewart explained in Robinson: "Even one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the 'crime' of having a common cold." Id., at 667.

A claim that punishment is excessive is judged not by the standards that prevailed in 1685 when Lord Jeffreys presided over the "Bloody Assizes" or when the Bill of Rights was adopted, but rather by those that currently prevail. As Chief Justice Warren explained in his opinion in Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86 (1958): "The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man. . . . The Amendment must draw its meaning from the

7 Thus, we have read the text of the Amendment to prohibit all excessive punishments, as well as cruel and unusual punishments that may or may not be excessive.


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