The 8th Amendment Examples & Court Cases | What is the 8th Amendment?

Margaret Stone, Stephen Benz, Lesley Chapel
  • Author
    Margaret Stone

    Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English from Mississippi State University. She holds a Mississippi AA Educator License.

  • Instructor
    Stephen Benz

    Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

  • Expert Contributor
    Lesley Chapel

    Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

What is the 8th Amendment? What does the 8th Amendment mean? Learn about 8th Amendment rights, the 8th Amendment definition, and read 8th Amendment examples. Updated: 05/26/2021

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What is the 8th Amendment?

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.

Bill of Rights: 8th Amendment

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.

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  • 0:00 Definition of the 8th…
  • 1:17 Historical Background
  • 3:06 Excessive Fines Clause
  • 4:22 Cases Related to the…
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What Does the 8th Amendment Mean?

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.

Why Was the 8th Amendment Created?

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.

8th Amendment Examples

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:

  • Excessive bail or fines
  • Excessive force or brutal treatment
  • Unsafe prison conditions
  • Unsanitary prison conditions

8th Amendment Court Cases

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?

The Supreme Court has examined many 8th Amendment cases.
The Supreme Court Building

There are many court cases that examine and interpret the 8th Amendment. Some of the more important of these cases include:

  • Francis v. Resweber
  • Harmelin v. Michigan
  • Hudson v. McMillian
  • Furman v. Georgia
  • Gregg v. Georgia
  • Ingraham v. Wright
  • Roper v. Simmons
  • Graham v. Florida

Cases Addressing the Rights of Prisoners

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.

One 8th Amendment case addressed the issue of a failed execution attempt.
Electric chair

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.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About the Eighth Amendment:

List Prompt:

Make a list of the three things that the Eighth Amendment prohibits. Try to recall these from memory.

Example: Cruel and unusual punishment.

Essay Prompt 1:

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.

Essay Prompt 2:

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.

Essay Prompt 3:

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.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

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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