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What is the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution?

By Matthew F.
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees citizens the right to be free from excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment. It was ratified along with the Bill of Rights and took effect in 1791. It is supplemented by the 14th amendment and its Due Process clause, and it borrows from the English Bill of Rights of 100 years earlier. It was first ratified in the United States in 1776 in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and combines with the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments to protect the rights of the accused.

The cruel and unusual punishment provisions of the Eighth Amendment prohibit punishments deemed excessive or removed from the values of society, including drawing and quartering, a practice that was popular throughout Europe at the time. It further prohibits the extreme punishments of disembowelment, public dissection, burning alive, and stripping of citizenship. It did allow for the use of hanging and a firing squad, though these have since been forbidden.

These punishments were restricted first under the Eighth Amendment itself, and then under a 1972 Supreme Court decision, which laid out four main principles for ruling the restriction of punishments. These principles restricted punishments which are degrading to human dignity, like torture; those that are arbitrary; those that are clearly rejected by the greater part of society; and those that are plainly unnecessary.

Supreme Courts have, in the past, have declared many legal punishments too excessive in certain under the Eighth Amendment. A punishment of hard and painful labor was overturned in 1910, as was a punishment for addiction to narcotics in 1962, although a life sentence was allowed for possession of large amounts of these drugs. Starting in 1983, the length of punishments began to be called into question as cruel and unusual for the degree of the crime committed.

The death sentence is an especially controversial aspect of the Eighth Amendment. The amendment has provided for the restriction of capital punishment on the mentally handicapped, those aged less than 18 years, and those who have committed rape, which was met with much argument. States soon changed their laws to adapt to the rulings of the Supreme Court, with some states retaining the death penalty and some repealing it. The Supreme Court, in 1976, provided for the separation of the decisions of a verdict and a sentence.

The Eighth Amendment was originally only applied to punishments and fines leveled by the federal government and the Supreme Court. The 1962 case Robinson v. California provided that the cruel and unusual punishment clause extended to the states as well. The Supreme Court, however, has not ruled on whether the other provisions of the amendment apply beyond the federal government as well.

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Discussion Comments
By anon146530 — On Jan 26, 2011

I am actually writing an extempo (a five minute speech) on, among other amendments, the eighth amendment. I found his article very useful on cruel and unusual punishment, but i really need to know more about the other two clauses of the amendment and what they mean. If anyone has any information, could they please let me know?


By BambooForest — On Jan 09, 2011

@DentalFloss, while I agree with you, I suppose the problem with the eighth amendment and capital punishment is that many other cultures have had the death penalty in the past, including the English government from which the majority of the founding fathers originated. It did not strike them as strange them, and so it was not initially canceled out, and there will always be some people who still do not see it as unfair, even though it has been proven to also not work well as a deterrent to crime. I am not sure we will ever see the difference resolved.

By DentalFloss — On Jan 07, 2011

I have say that I find it odd that so many people are undecided on whether or not the death penalty counts as cruel and unusual punishment. While death is not exactly unusual, death by the hands of another person, to my mind, is certainly both cruel and unusual; after all, whether they are representing the state, the nation, or anyone else, one person is responsible for the execution at the end of the process, and I consider that to be cruel and unusual to the executioner as well.

By vogueknit17 — On Jan 06, 2011

I am often confused when amendment cases like this one with the eighth amendment can allow different states to have difference interpretations. While I accept and appreciate that different states interpret the law differently, I admit that sometimes I wonder where one ought to draw the line between things states can do differently and things that they cannot.

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