Article VIII: What Does It Really Mean?
required, nor excessive fines imposed,
Excessive bail was borrowed with a few slight changes from the English Bill of Rights Act. The concept of bail in both England and in the United States was never thought as right to bail in all cases, but to provide that bail would not be excessive in cases where it is considered legitimate to set bail.
The definition of Bail, as according to the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, property given as surety that a person released from custody will return custody will return at an appointed time. The concept of bail was first created by the Statute of Westminster the First of 1275 A.D., which created a detailed list of certain offenses that were bailable and those that were not. Because judges were permitted to imprison people with or without bail, the Petition of Right was enacted in 1628 A.D. Due to various frauds of petitions for habeas corpus which could not be presented the English Parliament enacted the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 A.D., which established procedures for the release of prisoners from prison and created penalties for judges who did not comply with the Act. As a result of this, the judges then set bail so high, that it could not be met. With this Parliament responded by including in the Bill of Rights of 1689 A.D. a provision that excessive bail should not be required.
In America excessive fines were given meaning during the early part of the twentieth century. In an early case, the Supreme Court held that it had no authority to revise the sentence of an inferior court, despite the fact that the excessiveness of the fines were quite apparent on the face of the records. With the inability to pay, the poor were then sentenced to jail and thus giving meaning to the term ”excessive fines” as it applied to the person sentenced. During the time the Eighth Amendment was adopted, the Supreme Court noted, that the word “fine” was understood to mean a payment to a sovereign as punishment for some offense. The Eighth Amendment itself, was clearly adopted in order to place limits on the powers of the government. The Supreme court also decided that the Excessive Fines Clause was intended to limit only those fines directly imposed by, and payable to the government.
One congressional member got into an argument over the true meaning of Cruel and Unusual punishments. He said that ”the import of [the words] being too indefinite,” while another Member said: ”No cruel and unusual punishment is to be inflicted; it is sometimes necessary to hang a man, villains often deserve whipping, and perhaps having their ears cut off; but are we in the future to be prevented from inflicting these punishments because they are cruel? If a more lenient mode of correcting vice and deterring others from the commission of it would be invented, it would be very prudent in the Legislature to adopt it; but until we have some security that this will be done, we ought not to be restrained from making necessary laws by any declaration of this kind” (FindLaw.com 1). Though it might be clear that a lot of people were concerned with the absence of cruel and unusual punishments from the Bill of Rights.
At first, the Court took a historical outline on interpretation, determining whether or not a punishment was ”cruel and unusual.” They made their decisions by comparing and contrasting to see if and what forms of modern day punishment was considered ”cruel and unusual” as compared to those in 1789. The Amendment therefore stated that the only true way to decide which punishments are cruel and unusual and which are not, is from societies ever evolving standards of decency.
The Eighth Amendment is only relevant to the criminal justice system, and acts as a guideline. It tells all those who work within the criminal justice system of standards and explains what these standards are and what they represent. It states that if and when bail is set in a particular case, it has to be set a reasonable price. This reasonable price in not only for bail, but for fines as well. Not only that, but no person is to be subjected to any sort of cruel and unusual punishment. As far what is considered to be “cruel and unusual,” this is to be decided by societies ever changing values of what is to be considered proper and improper.
The death penalty has to be one of the most controversial issues surrounding the eighth amendment today. This strict form of punishment has been used throughout the history of the United States. Today many people feel that it is a strict violation of the constitutional concept of cruelty. The campaign against death penalty has been around since the early 1960’s. As a result of this anti-death penalty campaign, the US Supreme Court did their own investigation and study as to whether or not it should be considered as a cruel and unusual punishment. “…agreed to hear a series of cases directly raising the question of the validity of capital punishment under the cruel and unusual punishments clause, and, to considerable surprise, the Court held in…that the death penalty, at least as administered, did violate the Eighth Amendment…those cases in which a large threat….where the lives of many may have been present as in airplane hijackings, may constitute an exception to the Court’s narrowing of the crimes for which capital punishment may be imposed…a death penalty statute…comes before the courts bearing the presumption of validity which can only be overcome upon a strong showing by those who attack its constitutionality. Whether in fact the death penalty validly serves the permissible functions of retribution and deterrence, the judgments of the state legislatures are that it does, and those judgments are entitled to deference. Therefore, the infliction of death as a punishment for murder is not without justification and is not unconstitutionally severe. Neither is the punishment of death disproportionate to the crime being punished, murder” (FindLaw.com 2).
To summarize this statement as quoted above, the United States Supreme Court felt that it was their responsibility to reconsider and decide whether or not the death penalty did violate the Eighth Amendment, as being a “cruel and unusual” punishment. In the end they deiced that the death did violate the Eight Amendment, but in certain cases where the suspect had risked many lives or committed the act of murder, the death penalty is a legitimate means of punishment and could be considered a good deterrent of crimes of that nature.
I completely feel the Eighth Amendment is a good guideline for criminal law, but it needs some improvement. It is my belief that excessive bail and fines are indeed a bad thing, because the poor suffer more than the rich. This is not just in a democratic society. I also feel that we need to update what should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Our society is living in the fear of being robbed, murdered, kidnapped, etc. Recently there have a large number of crimes where lots of people have been killed and it seems right that these crimes should have a large bail set. But for other less sever crimes, more reasonable bail should be considered.
1) Green, Martin, ed., Core II The American Experience. Acton: Copley Custom Publishing Group, 1998.
2) “U.S. Constitution: Eighth Amendment: Annotations.” Internet. 3 June 1999. Available: www.FindLaw.com