(LibertySociety.com) – The Eighth Amendment limits the sanctions imposed on those accused or convicted of crimes. However, it’s remained shrouded in mystery for more than 200 years.
Why Do We Have the Eighth Amendment?
Part of the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the Eighth Amendment contains three clauses that limit the requirement for “excessive bail,” the imposition of “excessive fines,” and prohibit “cruel and unusual punishments.”
However, the exact meaning of those restrictions is subject to interpretation. For instance, what constitutes excessive bail or fines?
In 1951, the Supreme Court ruled that bail is not excessive as long as the amount set isn’t higher than necessary to guarantee the accused’s appearance at trial. Similarly, in 1988, the Court held the denial of bail was not excessive if the accused posed a risk to public safety.
SCOTUS was relatively silent on the excessive fines until 1998, when it ruled penalties must be proportionate to the seriousness of the violation.
The Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is perhaps the most critical part of the amendment and remains controversial to this day.
What Constitutes Cruel and Unusual Punishment?
The Eighth Amendment is ambiguous regarding punishments, leaving the question up to the courts to decide which are considered cruel and unusual. The underlying legal principle is punishment should be proportional to the offense.
However, deciding what constitutes cruel punishment and determining whether it’s unusual is subjective and changes over time as society evolves. For example, at one time, the crimes of burglary and theft were punished by hanging. Additionally, methods of punishment have changed over time.
The Court also held in 1958 that punishments like stripping the citizenship of a natural-born person to be “more primitive than torture,” since it resulted in the “destruction” of a person’s “status in an organized society.”
SCOTUS summarized the importance of the Eighth Amendment in 2002. It ruled punishment must be weighed “in light of the basic prohibition against inhumane treatment,” adding that its guiding principle is the preservation of the fundamental right of “the dignity of man.”
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