Eighth Amendment (1791)

This amendment prohibits excessive fines and bail, as well as cruel and unusual punishments. The phrase “cruel and unusual punishments” first appeared in the English Bill of Rights. In colonial America, the British often employed branding, whipping, public humiliation and extremely long prison sentences for minor offenses. The Founders believed that justice requires that even those people found guilty of crimes be protected from this kind of treatment.

James Wilson lectured on justice and punishments, saying in 1791, “A nation [that tolerates] cruel punishments becomes dastardly and contemptible. For in nations, as well as individuals, cruelty is always attended by cowardice.” He argued that punishments should be swift, certain, and moderate in order to be effective and prevent further crime.

Landmark Supreme Court cases concerning the Eighth Amendment include Gregg v. Georgia (1976).