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The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution proscribes governments from imposing “cruel and unusual punishments,” as well as excessive bail and fines. The Amendment has roots in a similar provision in the English Bill of Rights, which historically sought to prevent extreme punishments like the whipping, pillorying, defrocking, and life imprisonment of Titus Oates for perjury. Despite the historical importance of the Amendment, U.S. courts and scholars have given the Amendment and its prohibitions relatively little attention. In particular, the Supreme Court has construed its text quite narrowly, especially outside of the capital context.
As time hurtles forward, new science constantly emerges, and many scientific fields can shed light on whether a punishment is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual, or even on whether bail or fines are unconstitutionally excessive under the Eighth Amendment. In fact, in recent years, science has played an increasingly important role in the Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. From the development of an offender’s brain, to the composition of lethal injection drugs, even to measurements of pain, knowledge of various scientific fields is becoming central to understanding whether a punishment is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. There are a number of limits to how the Court can weave science into its decisions, though. For example, relevant data are difficult to come by, as ethical limitations prevent a wide swath of focused research that could be useful in this arena. Further, the Justices’ understandings of the complicated science that can help inform their Eighth Amendment decisions are limited. This chapter examines the relevance and limitations of science — both physical and social — in Eighth Amendment analyses.
As with many constitutional provisions, the language of the Eighth Amendment is open-ended and vague in its proscription of excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments. Because the language of the Constitution does not provide any additional descriptive information concerning what might make bail or fines excessive, or punishments cruel and unusual, courts must look beyond the text itself to ascertain the meaning of the Eighth Amendment. With respect to the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, the U.S. Supreme Court has, over the course of several decades, articulated a number of relevant underlying values that offer some guidance in interpreting this Eighth Amendment provision. These values are also helpful in assessing the excessiveness of bail and fines.
This book provides a theoretical and practical exploration of the constitutional bar against cruel and unusual punishments, excessive bail, and excessive fines. It explores the history of this prohibition, the current legal doctrine, and future applications of the Eighth Amendment. With contributions from the leading academics and experts on the Eighth Amendment and the wide range of punishments and criminal justice actors it touches, this volume addresses constitutional theory, legal history, federalism, constitutional values, the applicable legal doctrine, punishment theory, prison conditions, bail, fines, the death penalty, juvenile life without parole, execution methods, prosecutorial misconduct, race discrimination, and law & science.
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