The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees citizens the right to be free from excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment. It was ratified along with the Bill of Rights and took effect in 1791. It is supplemented by the 14th amendment and its Due Process clause, and it borrows from the English Bill of Rights of 100 years earlier. It was first ratified in the United States in 1776 in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and combines with the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments to protect the rights of the accused.
The cruel and unusual punishment provisions of the Eighth Amendment prohibit punishments deemed excessive or removed from the values of society, including drawing and quartering, a practice that was popular throughout Europe at the time. It further prohibits the extreme punishments of disembowelment, public dissection, burning alive, and stripping of citizenship. It did allow for the use of hanging and a firing squad, though these have since been forbidden.
These punishments were restricted first under the Eighth Amendment itself, and then under a 1972 Supreme Court decision, which laid out four main principles for ruling the restriction of punishments. These principles restricted punishments which are degrading to human dignity, like torture; those that are arbitrary; those that are clearly rejected by the greater part of society; and those that are plainly unnecessary.
Supreme Courts have, in the past, have declared many legal punishments too excessive in certain under the Eighth Amendment. A punishment of hard and painful labor was overturned in 1910, as was a punishment for addiction to narcotics in 1962, although a life sentence was allowed for possession of large amounts of these drugs. Starting in 1983, the length of punishments began to be called into question as cruel and unusual for the degree of the crime committed.
The death sentence is an especially controversial aspect of the Eighth Amendment. The amendment has provided for the restriction of capital punishment on the mentally handicapped, those aged less than 18 years, and those who have committed rape, which was met with much argument. States soon changed their laws to adapt to the rulings of the Supreme Court, with some states retaining the death penalty and some repealing it. The Supreme Court, in 1976, provided for the separation of the decisions of a verdict and a sentence.
The Eighth Amendment was originally only applied to punishments and fines leveled by the federal government and the Supreme Court. The 1962 case Robinson v. California provided that the cruel and unusual punishment clause extended to the states as well. The Supreme Court, however, has not ruled on whether the other provisions of the amendment apply beyond the federal government as well.