Description: Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that forbids requiring excessive bail, imposing excessive fines, and inflicting cruel and unusual punishments.
Significance: The three clauses of the Eighth Amendment are the only provisions in the Constitution that place substantive limits on the severity of punishments in criminal cases. The Supreme Court's role has been to interpret these clauses.
The Eighth Amendment is derived almost verbatim from the English Bill of Rights (1689). Adopted in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, the amendment was intended to prohibit the abuse of federal government power, but the precise meaning of the amendment is unclear and requires interpretation by the Supreme Court. The first two clauses of the Eighth Amendment (prohibiting excessive bail and fines) have not been applied to the states. Although the Court has never established an absolute right to bail, it has reviewed whether bail has been set higher than necessary to ensure that a defendant appears for trial. The Court has taken a flexible interpretation of the cruel and unusual punishment clause, stating in Trop v. Dulles (1958) that punishments should be evaluated in light of the “evolving standards of decency” of a maturing society. The clause was formally applied to the states in Robinson v. California (1962). Barbaric punishments are prohibited, but the Court has refused to hold that the death penalty itself is cruel and unusual punishment. Punishments disproportionate to the crime, the treatment of prisoners, and conditions of confinement, may also violate the Eighth Amendment.