This article is written by Shreya Patra of Xavier Law School, Xavier University, Bhubaneshwar. This article broadly covers all aspects of the Eighth Amendment in the U.S, the history behind it, and death penalty as cruel and unusual, non-capital punishments (Robinson v. California), jail and prison conditions as cruel and unusual, bail (excessive bail, protective custody awaiting trial, bail for illegal immigrants), landmark cases on the Eighth Amendment like Overton v. Bazzetta, 539 U.S. 126 (2003), and recent cases on the Eighth Amendment like Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), Hall v. Florida, 134 S.Ct. 1986 (2014)
It has been published by Rachit Garg.
The Eighth Amendment has been in the news in the United States as it holds ground for awarding proportional and humane punishment but has failed to be implemented to this date. The State of Texas is currently facing a lawsuit that has been filed against it by inmates of Texas prisons (facing death row). The lawsuit accuses the prison policy of solitary confinement for an unspecified period of time for all those on death row, among other charges. This clearly violates the Eighth Amendment. The court ultimately dismissed and denied the lawsuit for not checking off all the boxes of the Eighth Amendment.
Similarly, in another case in Texas, an inmate facing nearly three decades of solitary confinement, which is clearly a violation of the Eighth Amendment, was turned away by the Supreme Court of the United States as it had not reached the extent of being called a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
This showcases to us the fact that the Eighth Amendment is always at a crossroads and is effectively carried out. This recent news has definitely left us shocked, and we cannot help but wonder what the role of the Eighth Amendment is here and how it is related to such instances.
The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution is one of the most important pieces of legislation that protects individual rights from government interference. It prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive fines, cruel and unusual punishments, and excessive bail.
In this blog, we’ll discuss the history of the Eighth Amendment, its implications for the death penalty, non-capital punishments, jail and prison conditions, bail, and landmark and recent cases. We will also cover the implications it will have on the punishments that are going to be awarded in the coming future.
Introduction to the Eighth Amendment
The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights. It reads: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The purpose of the Eighth Amendment is to protect individuals from government interference and protect the right to a fair trial. The Amendment is also meant to ensure that the punishments handed down by the court are fair and reasonable.
The Eighth Amendment protects individual liberties from arbitrary State action. It ensures that the State is not able to inflict excessive and inhuman punishments.
The United States Supreme Court has interpreted the Eighth Amendment in a number of ways. Most notably, the Court has ruled that certain punishments are considered cruel and unusual, such as the death penalty and non-capital punishments, as well as jail and prison conditions that are deemed to be excessively harsh. The Court has also ruled that excessive bail and protective custody awaiting trial can be considered cruel and unusual punishments.
There are many countries that do not allow the imposition of harsh punishments in order to prevent any inhuman practices. Countries like Croatia, Namibia, Romania, Mozambique, New Zealand, Ireland, etc. have completely abolished the death penalty for crimes occurring in their nations.
History of the Eighth Amendment
The history of the Eighth Amendment is closely tied to the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which was a response to the cruel and arbitrary punishments handed down by the English monarchy. The English Bill of Rights explicitly Stated, “excessive fines ought not to be imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This was the first time the phrase “cruel and unusual punishments” was used in a legal context. When the United States declared its independence in 1776, the new nation adopted the English Bill of Rights as the basis for its own system of laws. It is important to note that the founding father and American politician George Mason even suggested adding a clause that they should strive to prevent any cruel and unusual punishment methods in the United States. This became the central part of the Eighth Amendment, which came in the latter years. During the years in which such an Amendment was not in place, the (proposed) Constitution of the United States had no mention of the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment as there was no Bill of Rights. Thus, during this time, it can be rightly inferred that there was no protection placed on individuals from them, and they could face such inhumane methods of punishment for the crimes they have committed in the United States.
During the period of absence of such a clause from the (proposed) Constitution of the United States, the federal government was seen as being in a superior position as it had enormous power to punish those using such inhuman methods as there were no restrictions in place for them, thus oppressing and controlling the people. Many of the great American politicians were concerned about the safety and well-being of the citizens of the United States. They also believed that such abuses would continue to put the citizens and the federal government in such a position that people would not be able to freely live their lives while being chained to such thoughts.
The Founding Fathers of the United States added the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1791 as a way to protect the right of individuals to a fair trial and to ensure that punishments handed down by the court were not overly harsh. The Founding Fathers of the United States took into consideration several thoughts to ensure that a measure of punishment is given out to individuals who have committed crimes and to prevent cruel punishment for cruel crimes. Such inhumane modes of punishment are excessive.
Even though there exists a provision that protects individuals from experiencing such inhumane and cruel levels of punishment, it becomes important to address one of the flaws of the provision. The lacuna of this provision is that it does not define exactly what would be classified as inhumane and cruel. Thus, it becomes very vague to distinguish what is and is not inhumane and cruel as a punishment. There are several factors that have to be taken into consideration while deciding on the punishment, which include reasonability and proportionality.
Factors that determine cruel and unusual punishment
Conditions of the prison
The prisons house a large group of inmates, away from society, in special cells to maintain order and discipline, and this helps to reform such individuals. But in order to do so, the conditions of the prisons they are housed in have to be appropriate. Proper sanitation, compensation undertaken by them, a sufficient number of prisoners housed in the prison, and no overcrowding become essential to ensure prison conditions satisfy the court, and in no manner are cruel or harsh punishments prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.
Proportionality of the sentence
It is always important for the courts to keep in mind that whenever they provide any sentence, it should be proportionate to the crime. One cannot be given life imprisonment for shoplifting a blanket. This is where the test of proportionality comes in to determine the sentence that must be awarded. In the case of Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983), the Court elaborately discussed what elements would determine the proportionality of the sentence. These factors can be summed up as follows:
- The seriousness of the offense
- The brutality of the penalty
- The comparison of sentences awarded in the same jurisdiction for the same crime
- The comparison of the sentences awarded in the different jurisdictions for the same crime
Age of the prisoner
The age of the inmate becomes essential in determining whether awarding any punishment would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prescribes the prohibition of any cruel or harsh punishment. If the inmate is a minor or has not attained legal age as of yet and is given any punishment, the punishment is required to comply with the Eighth Amendment. Thus, the age of the inmate becomes important, as giving a cruel and harsh punishment would not be appropriate. It especially applies in instances where juveniles have been sentenced to the death penalty. Such juveniles approach the court, stating the violation of the Eighth Amendment in their case.
Death Penalty and the Eighth Amendment
The death penalty has long been a controversial issue in the United States. On one hand, some believe that the death penalty is proportionate and appropriate for crimes that disturb the peace and well-being of society; at the same time, others believe it is inhumane, should not be given, and must be abolished altogether. Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, remains one of the most widely discussed punishments because it is the last resort. The death penalty can be imposed in many ways.
The death penalty is a long standing punishment that has been controversial for being harsh and inhumane enough to end a person’s life for the crime they have committed. The most important objective of criminal law and the death penalty is to deter crime. Deterrence works very simply in the case of the death penalty. Any person who is going to commit a crime that is reasonably worthy of being awarded the death penalty rethinks their decision as there are chances that the person might be put on death row. Often, they dismiss such thoughts and do not take any action in this regard.
Types of Death Penalty
The United States has used several methods of carrying out the death penalty or capital punishment. It ranges from lethal injection to firing squads and death by hanging. Different States allow for different ways in which capital punishment may be carried out by them. The different methods of capital punishment are as follows:
Lethal injection remains the prime method by which capital punishment is administered. A death penalty through lethal injection involves the inmate being strapped to the bed and administered a single or multiple (often three) injections on the basis of State laws. The injections help to make the inmate unconscious, then cause paralysis, which ultimately results in their death. This method of execution has always been controversial due to the risks of medical hazards and other medical complications if proper measures are not taken beforehand. More than half of the States in the United States authorize lethal injection as capital punishment; that is, 28 out of the 50 total States. Lethal injection is the most widely used method for enforcing the death penalty. There has not been any substantial scientific evidence to show that it is cruel and painful. This is probably the reason why the Court has continued to support the view that the death penalty does not violate the Eighth Amendment.
Electrocution is another method by which capital punishment is carried out. In the method of electrocution, the inmate is electrocuted until there are no visible signs of life. Since electrocution causes lots of pain, especially burns to the body, and inmates may showcase signs to escape this discomfort and pain, they are often strapped to the chair to make the process easier. This process is accompanied by a medical practitioner ascertaining whether or not the process actually resulted in the death of the inmate. As many as 8 States in the United States allow for this mode of execution for inmates facing death row, out of which 7 already have lethal injection as the primary mode of punishment for capital punishment.
Lethal gas, also known as gas chambers, is another method by which capital punishment is carried out. In this mode of punishment, the inmate is strapped to the chair, after which the room is sealed and chemical gasses that are poisonous are released, which ultimately causes the death of the inmate. Then a medical examiner pronounces death after careful examination of the inmate with a long stethoscope attached to them.
As many as 7 States out of the total of 50 States in the United States allow for it; all of these States have lethal injection as the primary mode of punishment for capital punishment.
Hanging can be said to be one of the oldest methods of capital punishment that has been carried out for a long time. In this mode of execution, the prisoner is hanged till death. Several things are taken into consideration, including the weight of the prisoner, to ensure immediate death on hanging. The inmate is often tied at the hands and legs and blindfolded to prevent their escape, which involves opening a trap door through which the prisoner falls.
Out of all the 50 States in the United States, only a single State, New Hampshire, has authorized the method of hanging to death as capital punishment as an alternative, and lethal injection remains the primary method of capital punishment.
Firing squad is another method by which capital punishment is carried out. In this mode of punishment, the inmate is often strapped to a chair, and his head is covered. A firing squad that has assembled there itself fires rounds of bullets at the inmate at his heart, which is already located by the medical practitioner. After this is done, the medical practitioner plays an important role in locating the heart for the firing squad to shoot at in order to ensure the inmate suffers an instantaneous death due to a huge loss of blood.
A very few States have authorized this method of capital punishment. Out of a total of 50 States in the United States, only 5 have authorized this mode of capital punishment and have it as the primary method of execution, except for one, namely Idaho, Mississippi, South Carolina (secondary execution method), and Oklahoma.
The execution of inmates on death row takes place in many forms. Out of which, lethal injection, which is administered to inmates, remains the primary mode of execution in the majority of the States. But this mode of awarding the death penalty is also subject to several issues, including medical hazards and discrepancies. In comparison to lethal injection, other modes like electrocution, hanging, lethal gas, and firing squads are authorized by States in very small numbers.
Provisions available in the imposition of the death penalty
The process by which an inmate is sentenced to the death penalty is cumbersome. It involves several steps, each of which weighs on whether capital punishment is the only proportionate punishment and if any other alternatives could be sought. The procedure for imposing the death penalty can be classified as follows:
Seeking of capital punishment
The inmate or accused might at times, on their own accord, seek the death penalty instead of suffering a long period of punishment for the crimes they have committed. In the years that the United States has experienced Furman (1972), Gregg (1976), and Coker (1977), lots of questions about the factors determining the death penalty have arisen, highlighting the vagueness of such factors. These factors are very broad, and anything could possibly fall under them, thus making it difficult to decide on them. In addition to that, each State has its own special measures to determine whether the death penalty should be awarded or not.
Sentencing with capital punishment
Sentencing with capital punishment differs from State to State as State policies differ. Out of the total of 27 States that award capital punishment, only 25 allow it if the jury has decided on it. And the rest of the 24 States (exclusive of the 27 States) have a condition that requires the jury to unanimously rule for capital punishment.
There are some States in which the absence of a jury is a requirement, as they follow a different procedure altogether. It is described below for those two States:
Nebraska: In the State of Nebraska, there is a requirement for a unanimous decision to rule for capital punishment by a three judge bench.
Montana: The trial judge has the power in his hands to rule for capital punishment. No other people are involved in this process
States that require a jury often have additional conditions placed on them. Some of the States that have some conditions are as follows:
Arizona: In front of the jury (different from that which sentenced the accused to capital punishment), a retrial occurs for the capital punishment.
California: Same as Arizona
Kentucky: Same as Arizona
Nevada: Same as Arizona
Indiana: Judge decides the sentence
Missouri: Judge decides the sentence
Remaining States: The basic procedure followed is that if all of the jurors agree unanimously for the death penalty, then the death penalty is awarded, and in case if one falls back on such a decision, the death penalty is converted to a life sentence.
In the process of trial, if the accused is sentenced to the death penalty, they have a window of opportunity to showcase their innocence by appealing through a direct review. A direct review takes place in the ordinary course of criminal law procedure in the United States. It is necessary to conduct a direct review in order to ascertain whether or not the accused or inmate is truly guilty of the crime they have committed. This is done by examining all the records, evidence, and facts that were presented to them when the case was first brought before them in court.
The appellate court especially examines the reasoning given by the court and whether such a decision is legally sound. The appellate court also has the power to identify any legal lapses that might have occurred. In order to fix such blunders, the appellate court can take steps and decide on the judgment to be reversed, the sentence to be nullified, or the order for a new hearing for capital punishment to take place once again.
There are times when, upon examination by the appellate court, the accused or inmate is found to have no reasonable connection or nexus to the case or the crime committed. In such instances, the appellate court decides to charge the accused or inmate with acquittal (free of all charges) or not guilty as per their best and reasonable judgment after careful examination.
In instances where the accused or inmate, after careful examination by the appellate court, is found not to have been awarded the right punishment, that is, the death penalty is not a reasonable and appropriate punishment, then it might award them with the next harshest punishment or any other punishment they deem appropriate for the case.
State collateral review
Even after the death penalty is affirmed by the respective State court in a case, all hope is not lost for those accused. The accused have an additional remedy available to them. This is known as a State collateral review. A State collateral review is available for all those judgments that have been finalized. State collateral review is also referred to as State Habeas Corpus. For trials that are related to the death penalty and take place at the level of the State, State collateral review is the first measure that is available to such prisoners. In the case of a federally awarded death penalty, it first goes through a direct review, followed by a federal collateral review, also referred to as federal habeas corpus.
Since State collateral review is State specific, it differs from State to State. Each State has its own provisions relating to State collateral review. The option of State collateral review is provided to inmates in order for them to raise those issues that were not or could not be raised in the first trial or in the direct review. Often, to prevent loss of time, inmates file their State collateral review during the pendency of the direct review. Sometimes the direct review and the State collateral review are combined to ease the process; this is known as a unitary review.
Federal habeas corpus
Federal habeas corpus is also known as federal collateral review. In the event that the inmate is not satisfied with the decision in the State collateral review, they can seek a federal collateral review. A federal collateral review can only be sought in the federal courts and is confined to those courts. A federal collateral corpus is bound by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 1966 (AEDPA) and the very same Act defines and sets its limits.
Federal collateral review exists for the purpose of ensuring that the State has carried out its own collateral review as per due process of law. It is also tasked with keeping in check that the constitutional rights that are available to the inmates are not violated in any manner. Federal collateral review allows the inmate to bring forward any evidence that could prove his innocence. It is important to note that very few federal collateral reviews result in the successful acquittal of the inmate.
Thus, these are the different provisions available to those inmates who wish to seek capital punishment or have already been sentenced to the death penalty and are on death row and hope to voice themselves out once again before the court.
History of death penalty
The evolution of the death penalty can be broken down into three periods, namely:
- Before 1972
- After 1972
- Current status
Laws were loosely framed, and thus many records point to the fact that the death penalty by firing squad in the early 1600s was one of the very first of its kind. The death penalty was carried out as a common method of punishment to ensure and maintain peace in society.
It was much later, in 1789, after the adoption of the Eighth Amendment, that the need to prevent harsh punishments was highlighted. But it was not long before the Fifth Amendment of 1791 hinted at the fact that such harsh punishments could be given so long as they had the approval of the grand jury. Consequently, the Fourteenth Amendment in the year 1868 made it difficult for the Fourteenth Amendment as it
In 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was a cruel and unusual punishment and thus unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. This decision effectively ended the death penalty in the United States. In the case of Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), it was held that awarding the death penalty would be a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment. Thus, it was invalidated by the court. The Court also highlighted how the death penalty is being used to discriminate against marginal sections of society and fails to be a proportional punishment for any crime against society.
But this decision did not hold ground for long; with growing sentiments towards awarding harsh punishments for deterrence of crime and protection of society, it was evident that it would be reversed in the coming few years.
After 1972 – Restoration of death penalty
It was not long after Furman (1972) that its decision was reversed in 1976. In the case of Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), it was held that there is no need to declare the death penalty unconstitutional. The death penalty as a punishment serves the purpose of criminal law, which is deterrence. The Supreme Court reversed its decision in 1976, when it ruled in Gregg v. Georgia that the death penalty was not always a cruel and unusual punishment and could be allowed in certain cases. Since then, the death penalty has been legal in the United States.
These two stages showcase the shifting moral compass of the United States. It also clearly showcases that the United States was not all set on punishing criminals by using such harsh methods of punishment as capital punishment, and that will be evident in the coming years through several cases they have heard and several judgments they have put forth.
Current status – deed of the hour: proportionality
Proportionality becomes the most important factor in determining whether capital punishment should be awarded or not. The role of proportionality is to set a level of balance with the crimes that have been committed against society. It ensures that the capital punishment awarded serves its purpose by being a proportional punishment for the crime that has been committed.
In the case of Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977), it was highlighted that proportionality is the need of the hour in cases of punishments that are of the nature of capital punishment or the death penalty. The penalty must be in proportion to the crime that has been committed; otherwise, it would be a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment, which aims to prohibit the issuance of harsh and unusual punishment.
The following factors were developed in order to conduct the test of proportionality:
- To take into account the gravity of the offense and severity of the punishment
- To take into account how other criminals accused of same offenses are punished by other jurisdictions
- Take into account how other criminals are punished by their respective jurisdictions
In the case of Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008), two prisoners who were put on death row filed a case in this regard, stating that being put on death row using lethal injection would be a direct violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits harsh and cruel punishment of any sort. The court also looked into the question of what would be the scope of lower courts with regard to the death penalty. It specifically highlighted the fact that there is a need to adjudicate whether lethal injection would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment. In this case, it was held that such a form of death penalty would be the most humane form of death penalty, subject to the condition that it is carried out with necessary precautions and measures. Regardless of the measure and severity of carrying out the punishment, pain is bound to occur and be inflicted on the inmate. Thus, it was ultimately held that this form of death penalty, that is, lethal injection, satisfies the Eighth Amendment, and there is no violation here. And thus, Baze v. Rees in 2008 finally ruled that the use of lethal injection was not a cruel and unusual punishment.
Thus, the evolution of the death penalty has always been intriguing, essentially because it has always bounced between being constitutional and unconstitutional over the span of several years and is still in controversy because the arguments of both sides on this issue are valid and reasonable.
Persons ineligible for capital punishment
There has been a great hue and cry to exclude certain categories of people from being considered for capital punishment or the death penalty. They can be categorized as follows:
Child that survives rape
No death penalty or capital punishment is awarded in cases where the child who has been raped survives. This has also been highlighted in the case of Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008), which is an extension of Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977), where it was held that no capital punishment or death penalty would be awarded in cases of child rape given that the child survives. It has been categorically held in this case that awarding the death penalty is not a proportionate punishment for the crime. Only six States in the United States allow for the death penalty or capital punishment. They are as follows:
- South Carolina
Those facing sentences held without jury
Those facing a sentence that is held without a jury must not be subject to capital punishment or the death penalty of any kind. The same was held in the case of Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002). In this case, the fact that the jury’s presence must be guided by the facts and circumstances of the case and the criminal, in addition to an individual sentencing by the court, makes the criminal law process complete. In the absence of a jury and the presence of the judge, a sentence of capital punishment would make the sentence unconstitutional.
The aggravated factors discussed in the above case were further highlighted and elaborated in the case of Brown v. Sanders, 546 U.S. 212 (2006), where it was held that the sentence becomes invalidated if the jury finds anything that makes the invalid factor valid.
Those intellectually challenged or developmentally disabled individuals facing sentences
Those individuals who have disabilities of an intellectual or developmental nature are exempt from facing a sentence of capital punishment or the death penalty. In the case of Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), it was stated that such individuals have disabilities that may be cognitive or intellectual, and this lessens their understanding and severity of the crime. And therefore, it would be severely disproportionate to award the death penalty or capital punishment, and awarding it would be harsh and inhumane.
An extension of the case discussed above is the case of Bobby v. Bies, 556 U.S. 825 (2009). In this case, it was held that it is necessary to conduct a few hearings to determine the mental State and intellectual development of prisoners in order to ascertain the disability claims made by prisoners facing death row. This helps to determine whether they fall into the category of individuals eligible for capital punishment or not. In the case of Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. (2014), an inmate named Hall was sentenced to death row for the rape of the deceased victim and the murder of the deceased victim and another police officer. Hall basically challenged Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), which reasoned that those who are disabled intellectually should not be put on death row, but in Hall, it was deemed that such a threshold that was set is unconstitutional. It was held that measuring one’s IQ would not be an appropriate measure to determine intellectual disability, which helps to decide the eligibility of a person to be brought to death row.
Those individuals who are juveniles facing sentences
There has always been a need to protect those individuals who are below the legal age but facing charges against them. Such minors are referred to as juveniles, as they are facing charges similar to what an adult would have faced, if not for their age.
In the case of Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), it was highlighted that a teenager does not have the understanding or maturity that an adult would ordinarily possess. They are at a stage of growth and development and any influences of negative nature could have possibly triggered the situation they are in. And thus, they cannot and should not be held accountable for their crimes to the extent that they would face capital punishment in any manner. The Supreme Court has since ruled on a number of cases involving the death penalty, including Roper v. Simmons in 2005, which ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional for juveniles.
Thus, such individuals are exempt from facing any capital punishment or death penalty. If they are sentenced to capital punishment, they can approach the court, as it would be a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Non-capital punishments and the Eighth Amendment
Non-capital punishments, such as imprisonment, are subject to the same standards as the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment. In Robinson v. California, a landmark case from 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that States could not impose cruel and unusual punishments on people who had not been convicted of a crime. In the case of Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962), Robinson used narcotic drugs occasionally when he was with his friends. He was arrested on the basis of the statute of the State of California, and later a case was filed in this regard. On expert examination, certain scabs and scars were produced as evidence in court, but nothing was reasonable enough to prove his arrest was necessary to protect the interests of society or that he would be a danger to society. Thus, his conviction failed as the State of California did not satisfy the court with their reasons for the arrest. Also, the location of such use of narcotic drugs was not presented accurately by the State of California. It was held that such an arrest on the basis of one’s addiction to drugs would not amount to such harsh punishment. In addition to that, it is important to note that Robinson was not involved in the illegal trade of drugs in the State of California.
The Court reasoned that non-capital punishments, such as imprisonment, must also be proportionate to the crime committed and not be overly harsh. The Court also noted that long-term jail sentences for minor offenses could be considered cruel and unusual punishments.
Jail and prison conditions as cruel and unusual punishment
The Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment does not only extend to the death penalty or capital punishment but also extends to jail and prison conditions for inmates. Jail and prison act as places where inmates can focus on reforming themselves, detaching themselves from the very behaviors and actions that put them there in the first place, and learning to become acceptable humans before getting back into society. Jails and prisons are special places that house such individuals all in one place.
In order to truly invoke such behavior amongst the inmates housed at the jail or prison, it becomes necessary to provide them with the proper resources that allow them to feel like humans again. These proper resources are the basics like food, water, sanitation, and health facilities. In a number of cases, the court has held that prisoners have a right to adequate food, shelter, and medical care and that prison conditions must be humane and not excessively harsh. The extent of jail and prison conditions that would or would not amount to the violation of the Eighth Amendment can be understood through the following cases:
Unfair environment, management and violation of constitutional rights of prisoners
In the case of Holt v. Sarver, 300 F. Supp. 825 (E.D. Ark. 1969), the inmates of the prison named Cummins Farm Unit filed a suit against the prison for its management and unfair environmental confinement, and additional violations of the very constitutional rights that should be made available to every prisoner. The case was brought before the court on the basis of Section 1983 of Title 42 of United States Code. Three different petitions were filed by them. The first grievance of the inmates was the existence of the isolation cells, which was a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment and did not meet the standards of no cruel or harsh punishment to be undertaken to protect the inmates. Such confinement to isolation cells led to the neglect of mental and physical health, along with other basic amenities. In response to the three petitions filed before the court, the court decided to order injunctive relief. The commissioner of the prison was directed to produce a report before the court stating all the actions they have taken in order to solve this issue with the inmates. The grievances and reports continued to point towards a negative and unsatisfying outcome, and hence the case was not dismissed.
Prolonged working hours and other violations
The same case continued to be brought to court. In addition to the previous three petitions, an additional five petitions were filed, making it a total of eight petitions, and this came to be known as Holt v. Sarver, 309 F. Supp. 362 (E.D. Ark. 1970), against both Cummins Farm and the Tucker Intermediate Reformatory. The inmates questioned the reformatory methods by highlighting their prolonged working hours in the fields, and no monetary compensation was provided for this work in the fields, thus violating an additional Amendment, that is, the Thirteenth Amendment. For the violation of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Court was of the clear view that there was an imposition on the inmates to work under such harsh conditions in the field, and they did not want to do so. Thus, it is not a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment in any manner. On examination of the prison, it was found that the prison was also in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The prison was found to violate the Fourteenth Amendment and the Eighth Amendment. It was found that the harsh and unusual punishment that is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment is not only limited to an individual but can also extend to groups of individuals.
Restrictions on visitation rights and harsh prison and jail policies
In addition to the punishments themselves, the Supreme Court has also ruled that jail and prison conditions can be deemed as cruel and unusual punishments under the Eighth Amendment. But the same was not satisfied in the case of Overton v. Bazzetta, 539 U.S. 126 (2003). In this case, the inmates of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) were faced with restrictions on their visitation after the growing number of substance abuse cases among them, which concerned the security of the institution, and they were also unable to handle the large number of visitors. As per the changes made by the corrections department, including the attorney, authorized people like minor children accompanied by a family member or guardian would be allowed to visit the inmate. In addition to that, certain inmates had no visitation rights, and some of them had only attorney visitation rights. The court examined the policies set by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) for the inmates closely, including the difference in visitation rights amongst inmates on the basis of the severity of their crime, which was an additional bias. In the landmark case of Overton v. Bazzetta, the Supreme Court ruled that prison officials could not restrict the visitation rights of prisoners without due process. The Court noted that such restrictions could be deemed as cruel and unusual punishments and are thus unconstitutional. The court also highlighted the fact that such bans on the visitation rights of the inmates isolate them from exercising the constitutional rights that should be made available to them regardless of the situation.
Imprisonment to life on parole for juvenile
In the case of Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), a juvenile named Graham was charged with armed burglary and attempted armed robbery. During the trial, he was a minor, but he was tried as an adult. During his probation, he breached the conditions put on him and went on to commit crimes once again; thus, this time he was arrested and sentenced again, but not just to a prison term but to life imprisonment without any parole (release on conditions). In this regard, a case was brought before the court related to the fact that there is no compliance with the Eighth Amendment.
After the court carefully examined the case, it held that without parole, the inmate cannot be imprisoned for life, especially as a juvenile, as this would amount to a violation of the Constitution itself and is prohibited by it. In the instances where an individual is sentenced to life, they have to be given some ray of light by being allowed to avail themselves of the option of parole.
Unneeded beating of inmates housed in prison
In the case of Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977), a minor student was accused of not exiting the stage on time and soon enough when he was required to. He knew this accusation was wrong and defended himself when he was called in to the principal’s office, but on hearing about his punishment, he accepted it regardless, but then the teachers restrained him and spanked him. This gave him bruises, which led to him requiring immediate medical help. The court understood the parents and child’s plight and was of the view that such corporal punishment was definitely a violation of the Eighth Amendment and did not satisfy the prohibition against unusual and harsh punishment being inflicted.
Beating of inmates housed in prison – allowed if it is for bona fide purpose
In the case of Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312 (1986), a fight broke out in the prison. A few inmates stepped up to put an end to it. The guards grew anxious about the crowd, and in the process of settling them, they fired shots, one of which hit one of the inmates trying to stop the fight. While it was strongly argued here that the lives of inmates were put at stake with the shots being fired at them by the guards, we cannot forget about the fight that broke out there.
The guards, in carrying out their duty, fired shots to control the huge crowd that had already gathered and became difficult to control. To prevent any further mishaps and to impose discipline back in the prison, such shots were fired. The guards did not have any malicious intention of hurting or inflicting pain on any of the inmates and just wanted to break off the fight and impose discipline. Thus, it was held that in instances where there is bona fide intention present, it would be constitutional to take up such measures that are ordinarily unconstitutional.
Violation of Eighth Amendment – cruel punishment
In the case of Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002), the prisons in Alabama had a form of punishment known as the hitching post. It was a pole, to which, on the basis of receiving such punishment, they are tied using handcuffs, required to remain standing during the entire duration of this punishment, and often denied basic amenities required for one’s survival. This was the nature of the punishment. One such inmate, Hope, had already completed his first such punishment at the hitching post. Much later on, he received another punishment at the hitching post, where he was teased and not treated appropriately, not given water by throwing the bottle on the ground, refused any breaks to the toilet, and forced to get burned under the sun.
Subject to the actions and behavior of the guards, Hope took legal action against them by filing under Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code. It was held that in the present case, the use of the hitching post to punish inmates is definitely a violation of the Eighth Amendment. And carrying forward this punishment would clearly be a violation of the prohibition of cruel and harsh punishment under this very Amendment.
Nature of injury does not determine violation of Eighth Amendment
In the case of Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992), an inmate suffered from different bruises due to the infliction of injuries on his face, teeth, etc., by the guards of the prison. While the inmate suffered injuries due to the beating by the guards and filed the case on the grounds of violation of the Eighth Amendment. The opposing party pleaded that there was no excessive force or injury that would result in the standing of such a case in front of the court, and thus this case would not prevail before the court due to the lack of severity of the same. The court decided that the severity of injuries caused or inflicted is not an important factor in determining whether the Eighth Amendment has been satisfied. Regardless of the injuries caused and the severity of the injury inflicted, this case is a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Deliberately showing indifference to the prisoners and inmates
In the case of Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), an inmate was tasked with the manual labor of unloading items off of a truck. When he was engaged in such work, he injured his shoulder. Even though he had injured himself and there was a valid reason for him to refuse any additional work imposed on him, he faced segregation by the administration of the prison. He filed a case for lack of medical attention and other violations that do not satisfy the Eighth Amendment. The court held in this particular case that there is indifference to the prisoners and inmates housed in the prison, and thus this is a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment. Additionally, the court Stated that denying such medical attention is the denial of basic amenities that should be made available to an individual, which appears to be deliberate in this case.
Excessive number of prisoners in prison
In the case of Brown v. Plata, 131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011), a connection was drawn to several other cases and violations that are yet to be decided and finished being deliberated upon. This case faced and addressed several questions regarding the number of inmates and prisoners housed in prisons and questioned the systemic nature of discipline that can be maintained in such prisons if the number exceeds the estimate that they can house with them. This case highlights the fact that the California prison system was already facing overcrowding in its prisons, and the number was twice what it could hold. The court observed the issues that would arise from managing such a large number of prisoners and inmates if they did not have the capacity for the same. So, the prison was directed to reduce the number. The reduction has to be done to the satisfaction of the court without violating any of the provisions in a safe and efficient manner.
Bail and the Eighth Amendment
The Eighth Amendment prohibiting any harsh and cruel punishment does not only extend to the death penalty or capital punishment; it also extends to the provision of bail made available to the inmates. But it is important to understand what bail exactly is first. Bail is basically the amount of money paid to the court as a security, which guarantees their appearance in court on a later date (that is also set by the court itself). It is important to note that the law as contained under Section 3142(d)(2) of Title 18 of the United States Code) excludes certain categories of individuals from claiming the provision of bail.
The Eighth Amendment stands to prevent any excessive bail from being imposed on the inmates. The same fact was highlighted in the case of United States v. Motlow, 10 F.2d 657 (1926). In this case, excessive bail was issued, and thus the court ruled this was in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Charging such a high amount of bail acts as an outright denial of bail, as many do not have the means to deposit such an unreasonable amount.
The Supreme Court has also ruled on bail and its implications for the Eighth Amendment. In a number of cases, the Court has held that excessive bail can be deemed as cruel and unusual punishment. This means that the court must take into account factors such as the defendant’s financial situation when setting bail. Bail is such a provision that should not be out of reach for those individuals who cannot afford it, but rather it should be a safety net to ensure that all those individuals comply with the provisions and present themselves before the court when requested to appear.
The Court has also ruled that protective custody awaiting trial can be deemed as cruel and unusual punishment, as it can deprive a defendant of his or her right to a fair trial. In addition, the Court has ruled that bail cannot be denied to illegal immigrants, as this could be deemed as cruel and unusual punishment. Regardless of the case or situation, it is important to note that excessive bail is not to be imposed on anyone except if they appear to flee the country or fulfill any exceptions laid down under Section 3142(d)(2) of Title 18 of the United States Code.
Landmark Cases of the Eighth Amendment
Over the years, the Supreme Court has decided a number of landmark cases involving the Eighth Amendment. In the case of Furman v. Georgia, the Court ruled that the death penalty was a cruel and unusual punishment and, therefore, unconstitutional. In Robinson v. California, the Court ruled that States could not impose cruel and unusual punishments on people who had not been convicted of a crime. Especially in this case, California had arrested a person facing a drug addiction as per the statute of California. He had not even been involved in illegal drug trading for any question of his arrest to be raised. This case was a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment.
In Baze v. Rees, the Court ruled that the use of lethal injection was not a cruel and unusual punishment. The final decision laid down by the court clearly indicates that lethal injection does not violate the Eighth Amendment, which prescribes that no form of inhumane or cruel punishment must be awarded and that lethal injection satisfies the Eighth Amendment.
The case of Overton v. Bazzetta looked into the visitation rights of the prison, including other prison policies that prevented inmates from availing themselves of visitation rights altogether. The court listened to both sides of the argument and was of the view that this was unconstitutional and a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment. And in Overton v. Bazzetta, the Court held that prison officials could not restrict the visitation rights of prisoners without due process.
Recent cases of the Eighth Amendment
In recent years, the Supreme Court has decided a number of cases involving the Eighth Amendment. In the case of Miller v. Alabama 567 U.S. 460 (2012), the case of Graham v. Florida (2010) was further discussed. In Miller v. Alabama, the Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional for juveniles. The court further highlighted that they are of the same view in this case as they were in Graham v. Florida. The court stated clearly that the juveniles are mandatorily to be provided with the provision of parole if they have been sentenced to life.
In Hall v. Florida, the Court held that a standard IQ test could not be used to determine whether a defendant was mentally competent to stand trial. Hall v. Florida clearly laid out the fact that one cannot gauge the nature and severity of disabilities or in any manner determine whether they are true or not using IQ as a measure for this. And thus, it would not be appropriate to mention IQ in any case or set it up as a standard test of measure.
The Eighth Amendment’s scope is vast, and the same is visible in the case of illegal immigrants. The Court has recently decided a number of cases involving excessive bail and the right of illegal immigrants to bail. In these cases, the Court has held that excessive bail and the denial of bail to illegal immigrants can be deemed as cruel and unusual punishments. It can be noted that during COVID-19 when many resources were scarce across countries, there was an influx of illegal immigrants hoping to gain better access to resources, especially medical facilities.
Implications of the Eighth Amendment
The implications of the Eighth Amendment are far-reaching. It has been used to protect the rights of individuals from government interference, to ensure that punishments handed down by the court are fair and reasonable, and to protect prisoners from excessively harsh conditions.
The Supreme Court has used the Eighth Amendment to protect the rights of juveniles and illegal immigrants, to ensure that the death penalty is used only in certain cases, and to ensure that non-capital punishments are not overly harsh.
There are several future implications that the Eighth Amendment would have and that have to be considered in order to set some other measures that would help to determine whether or not the Eighth Amendment is applicable to the punishment. They are as follows:
- Evolution of standards of decency
Over the years, there has been an evolution in the standards of decency. What was previously considered immoral and indecent is no longer seen from the same perspective. Perspectives and thoughts change over time, and the same should be applied in interpreting the Eighth Amendment.
Proportionality has been and should remain an important factor in adjudicating matters related to the Eighth Amendment, as it stands to be a true test. It is as simple as the crime and the punishment being proportionate to each other and not going beyond that.
- Test between objectivity and subjectivity
There has always been a tussle between objectivity and subjectivity in matters related to the Eighth Amendment. Here, it becomes important to include both of them rather than just one because there cannot always be just one right answer or one wrong answer. The judgments have to cumulatively consider each and every factor before arriving at a conclusion.
- Comparison on an international level
There should be a comparison of the same crimes and the punishments awarded for them in order to determine whether it is appropriate to award the death penalty or not. There can be certain nations where the accused is awarded the death penalty for a crime, whereas in the United States it is not. So this can be used as a measure to determine whether awarding the death penalty would be a stretch or not.
- Originalism v. Living Constitution
It becomes very difficult to keep the constitution and the legal provisions stagnant because they do not meet current standards. Therefore, it is essential that we ensure that the legal provisions present in the Constitution and the current trend are fully implemented to ensure their effective and efficient use.
The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution is one of the most important pieces of legislation that protects individual rights from government interference. It prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive fines, cruel and unusual punishments, and excessive bail. The Supreme Court has used the Eighth Amendment to protect the rights of individuals from government interference and to ensure that punishments handed down by the court are fair and reasonable. The Eighth Amendment stands to ensure that there is no violation of the legal provisions and that there is no unusual or harsh punishment that is awarded to such individuals.
It is clear that the Eighth Amendment is a vital part of our legal system and essential for protecting the rights of individuals. It has been used to protect the rights of juveniles, illegal immigrants, and prisoners, as well as to ensure that the death penalty is used only in certain cases.
However, the interpretation of the Eighth Amendment is certainly a difficult task. What constitutes a ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment cannot be clearly defined. It is a dynamic concept that varies from time to time and place to place. Earlier, death penalties were considered necessary to protect society from the most dangerous criminals. However, with the advancement of human rights laws, the death penalty is often regarded as a cruel and inhuman punishment.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is the Eighth Amendment?
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States talks about three things. The first point it raises is that bail in excessive amounts should not be required to be charged to any individual. The second point it raises is that there should not be excessive fines for individuals and thirdly, the nature of the punishment inflicted should neither be cruel nor inhumane
Is the Eighth Amendment still actively applicable in the United States?
Yes, the Eighth Amendment is applicable in the United States. It is mandatory for the States to comply with the Eighth Amendment.
Can a case be filed in court for violation of the Eighth Amendment?
Yes, a case can be filed in court for violation of the Eighth Amendment. It was adopted by the United States Constitution in 1791 and, since then, has become a pertinent part and works as a check and balance by preventing any punishment awarded from exceeding its limit.
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