The Eighth Amendment and the Death Penalty

If the people are protected against cruel and unusual punishments, where does the death penalty come in?

Eighth Amendment

Photo by: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” No one convicted of a crime should face punishments that are considered severe or unfair. Being sentenced to death seems to be the grimmest and harshest sentence possible though, so why is it permissible under the protection of the Eighth Amendment?

Death penalty

In the early 1970’s the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Within a few short years however, during the case of Gregg V. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled by a wide majority that the death penalty under new statutes were no longer unconstitutional. Under the new guidelines, the trials of someone facing the death penalty must be a two part, with the first determining guilt or innocence and if found guilty, the second step to decide prison or death.

Is Utah pro-death penalty?

Photo by: Humphrey King

The state of Utah wasted no time in welcoming the death penalty back. In fact, Utah was one of the first states to begin perform an execution after the nationwide overhaul of capital punishment. Utah is also the only state to still have the questionable firing squad as an option of carrying out the death penalty when unable to “obtain the substance or substances necessary to conduct an execution by lethal intravenous injection” according to Utah Code 77-18-5.5. Many death penalty activists in Utah are currently fighting to cease the death penalty in Utah on the next legislative session. While many claim it is truly unconstitutional to take the life of another person under law, others admit the death penalty with the cost of the continuous appeals is just too expensive to support.

Capital felonies

Until Utah lawmakers decide to abolish the death penalty, Utah Code 76-3-206 states: “A person who has pled guilty to or been convicted of a capital felony [such as murder] shall be sentenced in accordance with this section [and if the person] was 18 years of age or older at the time the offense was committed, the sentence shall be:

(i) An indeterminate prison term of not less than 25 years and that may be for life; or
(ii) On or after April 27, 1992, life in prison without parole”;
(iii) [or the ultimate punishment,]  Death”.

Excessive Bail Clause Doesn’t Help Low Income Residents

The excessive bail clause of the Eighth Amendment doesn’t help low income residents who are unable to pay their bail amounts.

Eighth Amendment, Excessive Bail Clause

Bail

Photo by: Daniel Oines

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States declares” Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” In an attempt to ensure that everyone is treated equal, the Eighth Amendment protects citizens from being punished unfairly by either monetary means or through physical harm.

Utah bail schedule

The Utah bail schedule defines its purpose as to “provide assistance to the sentencing judge in determining the appropriate fine or bail to be assessed in a particular case ( . . . ).” In a sort of bail algorithm, the Utah bail schedule computes information such as the current charges, criminal history, and whether or not the defendant has a failure to appear to help determine what fine or bail amount to impose. While this may seem a fair way to ensure excessive bail is not being issued, it does not take into account personal situations or monetary status of the defendant.

Bail fits the crime, not the person

Photo by: 401(k) 2012

The excessive bail clause safeguards that no one is given a bail amount higher than necessary, but does not take into account whether or not the individual is able to afford the bail amounts. An individual making six figures a year is more likely to get out on bail versus another charged with the same crime who is making minimum wage.

The poor trap

Even if not deemed excessive bail from a legal standpoint, one bail amount may seem excessive to a person living on meager wages while another with deep pockets seeing the bail amount as mere pocket change. This can end with an uneven balance of rich vs poor behind bars, not because the charges of the penniless are worse, but simply because they do not have the cash on hand to “buy their way out of jail”.

Low income, high crime

Photo by: Roland Tanglao

The longer the poverty-stricken individuals sit in jail, regardless of whether or not they are ever convicted of a crime, the more likely they are to lose their homes, jobs, and even custody of their children; all factors that have the potential to increase the likelihood of criminal activity once the impoverished individuals are released from prison. The Excessive Bail Clause may protect the middle or upper class, but it is may actually be cruel and unusual punishment for the poor.

Prisoners’ Rights in Utah

When someone breaks the law in Utah, they may lose certain freedoms however there are prisoners’ rights that are to be upheld during the legal proceedings as well as after those individuals have been incarcerated.

Human rights

Prisoners' Rights

Photo by: The Unnamed

Human rights, often referred to as inalienable rights are given to all men and women for simply being human. These rights are indivisible and universal. They do not differ depending on gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, or language. In the United States, these rights are protected by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Internationally, these rights are protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations which defines rights of freedom of religion, life, and opinion while protecting all from discrimination, slavery, torture. No one is to deprive another of any basic human rights unless done legally through a court of law.

Prisoners’ rights

Although human rights are permitted by all, when someone is placed in jail or prison, they end up losing the right to exercise some of their basic civil liberties for a time such as:

• The right to freedom;

• The right to vote;

• The right to bear arms;

• The right to serve on a jury; and sometimes

• The right to life (death penalty).

An incarcerated person may temporarily or permanently lose the right to enjoy some basic human rights however prior to their arrest as well as during court and even while incarcerated, they maintain certain rights and protections regardless of the crime for which they are accused. These protections of prisoners’ rights are explained in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eight Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

Fourth Amendment

Photo by: USAG-Humphreys

Photo by: USAG-Humphreys

The Fourth Amendment protects those suspected of a crime with:

• The right against unreasonable searched and seizures.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Fifth Amendment

The Fifth Amendment also protects those facing crimes with:

• The right to remain silent;

• The right against double jeopardy;

• The right to avoid self-incrimination;

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

The Sixth Amendment

Photo by: J

Photo by: J

If someone is charged with a crime and is facing a court of law, the Sixth Amendment ensures they have:

• The right to a speedy trial;

• The right to a public trial;

• The right to an impartial jury;

• The right to cross examine a witness;

• The right to an attorney;

According to the Sixth Amendment, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

Eighth Amendment

When someone is incarcerated, they continue to have rights. These include:

• The right to a reasonable bail; and

• The right against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Eighth Amendment wraps up the civil liberties allowed to all defendants as well as a prisoners’ rights while incarcerated. It states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Legal assistance to protect human rights

Photo by: Flazingo Photos

Photo by: Flazingo Photos

It is vital to those seeking legal counsel to understand their constitutional rights during an arrest as well as in court proceedings and prisoners’ rights if incarcerated. With the help of a qualified criminal defense attorney, these basic human rights will be upheld by law.