Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The Eighth Amendment to The Constitution revolves around the idea of protecting individuals from cruel and unusual punishment. A simply stated amendment, the Eighth presents some challenges when it comes to classifying what truly is cruel and unusual punishment. What constitutes an unjust punishment? What does it mean to be cruel under the law? Is there a clear definition that we can draw for every situation, regardless of circumstance, that will say “this is where just punishment ends, and cruelty begins?”
The Amendment was created so that the government could not abuse its power because once the United States was formed and we were an independent nation, the government gained the ability to try, convict, and punish those accused of federal crimes. Not only was this amendment created to limit federal power, but the states as well under the Fourteenth Amendment which prohibits states from infringing on the personal privileges and protections of U.S. citizens. Regardless, the Eighth Amendment has plenty of topics for discussion as it asks what classifies as cruel and unusual punishment, does “cruel” expand to other methods than those simply described as barbaric, and should the death penalty still be used.
A landmark Supreme Court case that revolved around the Eighth Amendment took place in 1972 under the Burger Court. The defendant, Furman was in the process of robbing a home when a member of the family stumbled upon him. Furman attempted to flee from the home, but in doing so he tripped and his gun he had went off and killed a member of the family. In the state of Georgia, Furman was convicted of murder and was sentenced to death along with two other defendants in other cases that involved murder or rape convictions. The question posed by Furman’s case was “does the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in these cases constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?”
The Supreme Court decided unanimously or in “per curiam” for Furman and decided that yes, in these cases, especially Furman’s, the decision to impose the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment. In an extensive document the justices outlined their opinions and decisions; many stated that the death penalty may be dealt to certain criminals, but that there are so many mitigating factors that must be considered before doing so because there are so many cases that have involved the death penalty that should not have. Only two justices argued against the use of the death penalty at all. The Supreme Court’s decisions forced all state and national legislatures to rethink their stance and regulations on the death penalty and to make sure that it would not be administered in a discriminatory manor.
Thus the Eighth Amendment causes citizens to think about how much the law truly protects them, considering how much debate still continues over the issues of discipline and punishment. Does the court system protect its citizens enough, too much, or not enough? Does a perfect system really exist? Should we as a nation still use the death penalty, even though we are the only western nation to do so and only about 56 nations worldwide still use it within their legal systems? What does that say about our system? Our morals?