What Are Eighth Amendment Rights?
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The Eighth Amendment and its prohibition against excessive bail, excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment addresses the rights of individuals when they are first accused of committing criminal acts and if they are ultimately convicted. How the amendment is applied has been largely shaped by rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in appeals it has heard in the 226 years since ratification of the amendment.
Background and historical perspective
The principles expressed in the Eighth Amendment ratified in 1791come from the English Bill of Rights passed by Parliament about 100 years earlier. British judges, acting on behalf of the king, imposed excessively high bail on people to keep them imprisoned.
Inclusion of the Eighth Amendment in the Bill of Rights serves as a reminder that criminal charges are nothing more than unproven allegations until there is a trial. Excessive bail would make a mockery of the principle of the presumption of innocence by permitting judges to keep people in jail pending trial.
Prohibiting excessive bail and excessive fines is viewed as consistent with the desire of the framers to place limits on the powers of the federal government. Keep in mind the Eighth Amendment, along with the other amendments of the Bill of Rights, only applied to activities by the federal government when they were added to the Constitution.
Prohibition against excessive bail does not equate to a right to bail
The Supreme Court has had many opportunities to address the issue of excessive bail and the right of a person accused of a crime to be able to secure his or her freedom by posting bail. It rejected the argument that it would be a constitutional violation to hold someone without bail while awaiting trial if the person poses a threat to the safety of the community. In doing so, it rejected the idea that bail could only be denied if the accused posed a risk of fleeing.
Excessive bail, according to the court, is when courts set it at a level higher than necessary to satisfy its stated purpose. For example, if a person is considered to be a flight risk, then bail must be set at a level only high enough to ensure he or she will appear again in court. Courts must take into consideration the individual's ability to pay, so bail of a $1 million might not be excessive for the CEO of a major corporation, but it would be for someone earning minimum wage.
The Supreme Court and cruel and unusual punishment
The failure of the Eighth Amendment to include a clear definition of cruel and unusual punishment has left it to the Supreme Court to interpret its meaning through appeals of sentences imposed in criminal cases. Originally, the amendment was thought to apply to excessively gruesome forms of punishment, including:
- Burning at the stake
The decisions from the court on the issue of punishment have evolved to where "excessive punishments" are those that are disproportionate to the crime for which a person was convicted. Essentially, the punishment must fit the crime.
Continuing interpretation of the Eighth Amendment
Supreme Court rulings have failed to declare the death penalty as being a violation of the Eighth Amendment, but the court ruled it to be a violation to impose the death penalty on individuals convicted of committing murders when they were juveniles. In another case involving a botched electrocution attempt, the court ruled a second effort to put the prisoner to death following the failure of the first attempt to kill him was not cruel and unusual treatment.