Table of Contents
- What is the 8th Amendment?
- What Does the 8th Amendment Mean?
- Why Was the 8th Amendment Created?
- 8th Amendment Examples
- 8th Amendment Court Cases
- Why is the 8th Amendment Important Today?
- Lesson Summary
The 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution states, ''Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.'' The Constitution itself provides this simplified definition of the amendment which provides certain protections to citizens, particularly in regards to punishment and bail. A similar amendment is also found in the English Bill of Rights.
The 8th Amendment was ratified in 1791 at the same time as the rest of the Bill of Rights, which are the first ten amendments to the Constitution. James Madison wrote these ten amendments which are designed to limit the powers of government in favor of individual freedoms whenever possible.
Some of the amendments prohibit the government from overreach into citizens' private lives. The 8th Amendment is designed, in part, to protect the presumption of innocence; that is, excessive bail cannot be used as a way to punish those who have not yet been convicted of a crime.
Some controversy is associated with the interpretation or meaning of the 8th Amendment. First, the term ''excessive bail'' refers to the concept of reasonable bail, the amount of money the court assesses to an accused for their temporary release from incarceration while waiting for their trial date, when the court finds it is appropriate to allow bail. Some argue that the 8th Amendment does not guarantee that bail must be offered in every case. Others believe that withholding bail tramples on the presumption of innocence, which is guaranteed in the due process rights protected by 5th and 14th amendments.
The 8th Amendment also addresses the issue of ''excessive fines''. The courts have interpreted this provision to mean that fines must be reasonable and must reflect the severity of the crime. In other words, an individual arrested for a minor crime cannot be charged a large amount of money because doing so would not be justified by the severity of the crime.
Perhaps the most well-known clause of the 8th Amendment is the protection against ''cruel and unusual punishment.'' At first, this was believed to refer to punishments that existed at the time the amendment was ratified. Later Supreme Court interpretations suggest that the definition of the term evolves with time, and what is considered cruel punishment in the present may not have been viewed that way in previous eras. Most agree that the term prohibits torture and unnecessarily painful types of punishment.
Having been subjected to abuses of power by the British government in the American colonies meant that governmental incursion was fresh on the minds of the framers of the United States Constitution. The rights of citizens, therefore, were a primary concern, and the Constitution very specifically identifies these rights. The Constitution also prevents an authoritarian government from wielding its power too aggressively and also aims to make the government responsible to the people.
In fact, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was passed in 1776, first sought to limit the American government's involvement in the affairs of ordinary citizens. The wording of the cruel and unusual punishments clause in the Virginia Declaration of Rights appears almost verbatim in the Bill of Rights. Both Virginia and Massachusetts strongly supported the addition of a prohibition against excessive punishment in the Bill of Rights.
The 8th Amendment protects citizens who are arrested. First, the amendment addresses the issue of bail. The 8th Amendment prohibits the government from charging more money for bail or fines than is reasonable. In addition, two factors must be considered when setting bail. The first consideration is how much money the defendant has; the second is whether the defendant is likely to flee the country. The Supreme Court has overturned an excessive fine only once because of the 8th Amendment.
The 8th Amendment has also been used to examine prison conditions. Courts have determined that this amendment calls for officials to address prison sanitation; prisons that allow unsafe or unsanitary conditions to occur would be in violation of the 8th Amendment. This amendment also relates to prison conditions because it forbids prison guards and other members of law enforcement from using excessive force or brutality against prisoners. The importance of the 8th Amendment in regard to prisoners is clear from the protections it affords to incarcerated people.
The 8th Amendment specifically bans:
A number of questions arise regarding the use of the 8th Amendment. For example, should the Court use historical or contemporary definitions of cruel punishment? Should juveniles be executed? Must the punishment fit the crime? Can juveniles be sentenced to life without parole? If an execution attempt fails, can prison officials attempt the execution again? Is corporal punishment allowed in public schools? Can prison guards beat prisoners at will?
There are many court cases that examine and interpret the 8th Amendment. Some of the more important of these cases include:
Several court cases address the treatment of prisoners. Francis v. Resweber, for example, takes up the matter of cruel and unusual punishment. This case was brought before the Supreme Court of the United States after the electric chair malfunctioned at the execution of Willie Francis, a black teenager, in Louisiana. Francis attempted to stop a second attempt at execution after the equipment was repaired, citing the 8th Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Francis also believed a second attempt at execution would violate the 5th Amendment's protections against double jeopardy, or prosecution twice for the same crime.
The Court ruled that Francis would not be placed in double jeopardy by a second attempt at execution and furthermore that he was not a victim of cruel punishment, since the phrase refers to the manner of punishment rather than events that occur when the state is attempting to lawfully execute someone.
In Harmelin v. Michigan, Harmelin was sentenced to life without parole for possession of a large amount of cocaine. Harmelin argued that the punishment was too harsh for the crime, but the Supreme Court ruled that the 8th Amendment does not guarantee that the sentence must be proportional to the crime.
Another case, Hudson v. McMillian, occurred when prisoner Keith Hudson was beaten by two guards while their supervisor looked on. Hudson claimed his 8th Amendment rights had been violated because of the guards' cruel treatment of him, and he sought monetary damages. After a lower court ruled that the 8th Amendment only applied to prisoners who suffered ''significant injury'', Hudson appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that it was not so much the extent of the injury, but rather the malicious and sadistic treatment of prisoners, such as Hudson had experienced at the hands of the guards and their supervisors, that was not allowed by the 8th Amendment.
Many believe that the death penalty is cruel and unusual and the Supreme Court has addressed that issue on multiple occasions.
In Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court considered the case of a man who accidentally fired a gun, killing an occupant of the residence he was burglarizing. The Supreme Court placed a temporary freeze on the death penalty after determining that its use was often arbitrary. The Court also found that racial bias sometimes determined whether the death penalty was applied or not.
Gregg v. Georgia is another important case related to the 8th Amendment. In this case, the Supreme Court re-allowed the death penalty as long as there were procedures in place that determined how the death penalty was administered.
The Supreme Court has also ruled under the cruel and unusual clause of the 8th Amendment that the death penalty cannot be applied solely for the rape of another person when a death did not occur.
The Supreme Court has also ruled on several 8th Amendment cases addressing the treatment of minors. The Court, in Ingraham v. Wright, examined the question of corporal punishment after a student in a public middle school refused to submit to paddling by a principal and was struck on various parts of his body. The student's mother took him to the hospital following the incident at school.
Ingraham claimed his rights had been violated because the 8th Amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishment. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that corporal punishment can be allowed in schools, as long as the punishment is not excessive. The opinion of the majority of justices on this issue was based on the realization that schools naturally allow more public oversight than prisons, which tend to be less open to public scrutiny. Therefore, the justices said, public input in the schools would theoretically insure that punishment was not overly harsh.
In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court considered the issue of minors facing execution. Christopher Simmons, a seventeen-year-old, was sentenced to death. He claimed that executing minors is prohibited under the cruel and unusual clause of the 8th Amendment, and the Court agreed. Therefore, minors cannot be executed. In a related case, the Supreme Court determined that the execution of people with severe mental disabilities is also a violation of the 8th Amendment.
In a similar case, Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of sentencing minors to life without parole. Terrence Graham, who had been convicted of several crimes not involving homicide, asserted that the sentence he received of life without parole was a violation of the 8th Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed that this sentencing a juvenile to life without parole did indeed violate the 8th Amendment's call for proportionality in sentencing.
The protections offered by the 8th Amendment are still very relevant and important today. For example, overcrowded prisons often lead to unsafe and unsanitary conditions for prisoners. The 8th Amendment thus safeguards prisoners from violations of basic standards of living. In addition, since prisons by their nature are to some extent shielded from public view, prisoners can expect humane treatment from guards because of the 8th Amendment.
Seizures of homes and property for drug crimes are common occurrences in society today, and the practice is allowed under the 8th Amendment. The amendment does, however, ban egregious and excessive bail and fines, even for drug offenses.
The Supreme Court has also considered the question of using historical or contemporary definitions of cruel punishment. At one time, the Court looked to history to determine if a punishment should be considered cruel; specifically, it asked if the punishment existed in 1789, when the 8th Amendment was ratified.
Eventually, the Court determined that the framers intended the document to address changing societal standards in regard to punishment. The 8th Amendment ''must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,'' the Court ruled in the case of Trop v. Dulles.
This interpretation means that the definition of cruel punishment is not the same today as it was in 1789. It also means that what is considered acceptable punishment today will likely change in the future, as the framers of the Constitution intended.
The 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution says, ''Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.'' This amendment was passed in 1791 at the same time as the rest of the Bill of Rights, which consist of the first ten amendments to the Constitution. A number of court cases have interpreted the 8th Amendment as offering broad protection to citizens who are arrested or convicted of crimes. The rights provided under the 8th Amendment are still important today.
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Make a list of the three things that the Eighth Amendment prohibits. Try to recall these from memory.
Example: Cruel and unusual punishment.
Write an essay of about one page that describes the historical origins of the Eighth Amendment.
Tip: Refer to the case of Titus Oates in English common law.
Choose one of the six court cases discussed in the lesson (Stack v. Boyle, Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas, US v. Bajakajian, Furman v. Georgia, Gregg v. Georgia, Robinson v. California) and explain how the outcome of this case influenced the Eighth Amendment. The essay should be at least three to four paragraphs in length and should include a description of the facts of your chosen case.
Example: Stack v. Boyle laid the foundation for specifically how the amount of bail should be determined.
In an at least one paragraph, explain the definition of cruel and unusual punishment, and when the death penalty can and cannot be applied.
Example: A rape conviction alone will not cause the death penalty to be implemented.
Make a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that lists and briefly describes the main points of the six cases related to the Eighth Amendment mentioned in the lesson.
Tip: It may be helpful to divide your graphic organizer into three sections (one for excessive bail, one for excessive fines, and one for cruel and unusual punishment).
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