The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States serves to protect those found guilty of crimes from being treated unfairly and in an unlawful manner. The Eighth Amendment reads, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Eighth Amendment rights include three distinct clauses that provide for certain rights to individuals convicted of a crime. Like many of the Amendments under the Bill of Rights, the inclusion of the Eighth Amendment has precedence in English Law.
Much of the reason for inclusion of the Eighth Amendment is due to a particular case in England, where a man was sentenced to imprisonment, and also included whipping and being put to the stocks for two days. This individual, Titus Oates, was found guilty of committing perjury, a common and ordinary crime that would not warrant such punishment. Eventually, “cruel and unusual punishment” would be barred by the English Parliament in 1689, four years after the Oates ordeal.
The Eighth Amendment would not only include the outlawing of excessive and cruel punishment, but would also provide for unfair and excessive bail and fines to be implemented on an individual. The excessive bail clause limits the power of the courts of setting bail for an accused or alleged criminal during arrest before the trial is to commence.
Bail refers to the amount of money that an accused individual must present as collateral for their guaranteed appearance at the set court date for the criminal proceedings. After the result of the case, regardless of the verdict rendered, the accused has the right to retrieve the amount that was given. If the accused individual, however, fails to appear in court on the set date and time, the defendant will lose or forfeit the amount of money given and may face further charges for not being present in court on the imposed date. The amount of bail for an accused person is determined by a number of factors:
● The severity of the alleged crime;
● The weight of evidence against the defendant;
● The moral character proven by the defendant, such as conduct with the family or occupation, as well as involvement in the community;
● The ability of the defendant to pay a certain amount;
● Whether or not the defendant will flee or not meet the court date if released on bail.
The bail amount for a certain situation is to be deemed reasonable, but also has to be an amount high enough in order to ensure that the defendant will show for the proceedings, for the forfeiture of such amount would prove detrimental in one way or another. An extremely high amount would not allow the accused to be released, and infringing on their freedom and also prevent them from securing a proper living for themselves and their families. However, if the amount imposed is too small, it is more likely that the defendant will simply not appear in court and the forfeiture of a small amount would simply not be of consequence. Under certain circumstances, bail my be denied for an accused criminal if it can be deemed that releasing the individual can prove to be harmful or dangerous to the community.
A similar situation arises with the Eighth Amendment clause regarding excessive fines. The provision limits the extent and amount that can be imposed by the courts for fines for certain crimes. Fines must be reasonable enough so the defendant can afford to furnish payment, but high enough to ensure and deter the individual from committing the crime repeatedly.
Fines imposed by a judge are not subject to appeals and will not be overturned unless it can be vehemently proven that said judge has rendered the amount from a position of abuse or biased discretion. In certain extenuating circumstances, a court may overturn a fine if it is deemed as arbitrary or the amount is so large and disproportionate to the crime that the defendant will incur excessive financial damages by paying such an amount.
Though the bail and fines clauses of the Eighth Amendment are important, the focus of the provision is the cruel and unusual punishment clause. Like many other Amendments in the Bill of Rights, it is applied to the states by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Furman v. Georgia trial determined when a punishment may be deemed to be cruel and unusual:
● “A severe punishment that is obviously inflicted in wholly arbitrary fashion”
● “A severe punishment that is clearly and totally rejected throughout society”
● “A severe punishment that is patently unnecessary”
● “…A punishment must not by its severity be degrading to human dignity”
Some punishments are forbidden, regardless of the severity of a crime. Executing those under the age of eighteen and those to be proven as mentally handicapped, is considered as a violation of Eighth Amendment rights. Jail sentencing is also included in the provision, such that it must administered in proportion to the crime committed.
It has been applied under Eighth Amendment rights that death penalties should be considered unconstitutional, and has been the subject of much debate in recent years. As of today, the Supreme Court has not rendered it as such, and several states in the U.S. still maintain capital punishment laws.