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The Bill of Rights, or the first ten Amendments to the United States Constitution, guarantees statutory freedoms to all citizens. Among these freedoms are particular rights of protection from certain aggressions, either from others or from the state. For instance, the Bill of Rights protects citizens from cruel and unusual punishment in the Eight Amendment, which also affords protections against excessively high bail, which would otherwise severely affect the lives of individuals accused of crimes…
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The Bill of Rights, or the first ten Amendments to the United s Constitution, guarantees sta y freedoms to all citizens. Among these freedoms are particular rights of protection from certain aggressions, either from others or from the state. For instance, the Bill of Rights protects citizens from cruel and unusual punishment in the Eight Amendment, which also affords protections against excessively high bail, which would otherwise severely affect the lives of individuals accused of crimes. Together, these basic elements define the Eighth Amendment as a measure to protect individuals from punishment before being convicted of a crime. Without protection against excessive bails, one could argue that an accused party could be punished even before conviction of the actual crime. Likewise, Eighth Amendment protection ensures that individuals do not serve sentences that do not reflect the nature or severity of the crime, which is a basic element of retributive justice. According to the reasoning behind the Amendment, these limitations on the court’s power to interpret and apply the law are necessary in a system of checks and balances; that is, the Eighth Amendment was created in an atmosphere of a strategic decentralization of power into the separate branches of government. The Eighth Amendment, like most of the Bill of Rights, was inspired by instances in English case law. In particular, the case of Titus Oates demonstrated the need for such protections (Patterson 35). Oates was tried for perjury after wrongly accusing many people who eventually hanged for their offenses. He was sentenced to annual pillory, whipping, and imprisonment. For many, this constituted a cruel and unusual punishment, which led to a 1689 law that banned such punishments in Britain. Like the subsequent American law, this put a limitation on the imagination of judges, who were responsible for constructing punishments for those convicted of crimes. Americans George Mason and Patrick Henry extended this limitation to the powers of Congress in order to prevent laws upholding usual and cruel punishments (Patterson 84). Given that Eighth Amendment protections can be divided between excessive bail stipulations and cruel and usual punishment stipulations, it is obvious that much has changed since the Amendment’s original ratification. For this reason, the role of the Courts is to adjust what exactly defines an "excessive” bail or a “cruel and usual” punishment” (Stinneford 18-22). As Earl Warren reported in the opinion of the Supreme Court case Trop v. Dulles, “The Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” (Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86). In other words, as society changes, so much the standards of decency with respect to what punishments reflect the values of society. Of course, the dimensionality of cruelty in a punishment not only reflects what is abhorrent to the general social values and culture, but also in proportion to the offense committed (Finkel 138). For instance, not only might our contemporary society find drawing and quartering a murderer objectionable; contemporary society might also find putting a shoplifter to death a “cruel and unusual punishment” as well. An example of the Supreme Court’s interaction with the Eighth Amendment with respect to the disproportionality of the punishment to the crime came in 1977 with the case of Coker v. Georgia. In this case, the Court prohibited the death penalty in cases of rape committed against a woman. Erlich Anthony Coker, a prison escapee, was kidnapped of rape while serving a sentence for rape, kidnapping, murder, and assault. He was sentenced again on the charge of rape, but this time sentenced to death. After the Supreme Court of Georgia upheld the sentence, the United States Supreme Court repealed the sentence and declared that the proportionality of the punishment must reflect the nature and dimension of the crime. Unlike murder, the crime of rape does not deprive another of life; therefore, it does not involve as “serious” of an injury as does murder, and so does not deserve as serious a punishment (Coker v. Georgia 433 U.S. 584). While outlawing capital punishments in the case of rape is strongly intuitive in terms of disproportionality of punishment to crime, the 2003 Supreme Court case of Lockyer v. Andrade upheld the 50-years-to-life sentence imposed on violators of the Californian 3 strikes law. In the case, the defendant’s third conviction was for shoplifting videotapes that, in sum, were worth about $150. The misdemeanor or felony severity of this shoplifting crime was left up to the discretion of the California court, who inevitably judged it a felony. On top of his prior convictions, Andrade was sentences to 25 years to life in prison. Under this Californian three strikes law, three felony convictions opens an individual up to the possibility of a prison sentence that far outweighs the costs of their crimes. The presumed purpose of this law is to deter individuals who have been convicted of felonies to continue to commit such crimes. However, the United States Supreme Court upheld the legitimacy of this law in Lockyer v. Andrade by ruling that this punishment was not in fact cruel or unusual. The Eighth Amendment was drafted as part of the Bill of Rights in order to protect American citizens from unjust punishments. An excessive bail, like a cruel and unusual punishment, does not reflect the values of the criminal justice system to the extent that individuals are innocent until proven guilty and that those convicted of crimes must be punished proportionately to their crime. As such, the Amendment places a limitation on the discretion (and ultimate power) of the Courts to assign whatever sentence or punishment to the accused that they wish. This limitation prevents the abuse of power that could inevitably damage the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. As mentioned previously, as society’s notions of what constitutes cruel and unusual or an “excessive bail” changes, so must the Courts set new precedents on what is justified and what is not in terms of the punishments handed down to criminals. The Supreme Court will play a vital role in this changing sense of decency. Works Cited Coker v. Georgia 433 U.S. 584. No. 75. United States Supreme Court. 28 March 1977. Finkel, Norman. Commonsense Justice: Jurors' Notions of the Law. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. Patterson, John. The Bill of Rights: Politics, Religion, and the Quest for Justice. New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2004. Stinneford, John. "The Original Meaning of "Unusual": The Eighth Amendment as a Bar to Cruel Innovation." Northwestern University Law Review, 102(4) (2008): 1-89. Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86. No. 70. United States Supreme Court. 31 March 1958. Read More
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