Policy Issues

Sentencing Alternatives

Alternative sentences, such as life without parole, avoid some of the key problems with capital punishment, including the high cost of the death penalty and the risk of executing an innocent person.

DPIC Podcast: Discussions With DPIC

Missouri Attorney Discusses Winning Life Sentence in Federal Prison-Killing Case


Discussion around the death penalty has increasingly shifted away from a moral debate to a comparison of capital punishment and its viable alternatives. The choice today for prosecutors, jurors, legislators, and the courts is usually between the death penalty and a sentence of life without parole (LWOP). Some victims’ families prefer LWOP to the uncertainty of securing a death sentence and the likelihood of many years of appeals before an execution would occur. Many prosecutors have also concluded that the high costs associated with capital cases are unaffordable, especially with the high rate of reversals. As the availability and use of LWOP has expanded, the number of death sentences has declined dramatically.

States have also looked beyond punishment to alternative ways of reducing violent crime, including community policing, the introduction of crime-fighting technology, and restorative justice efforts. In some jurisdictions, resources not expended in seeking the death penalty could be used to support these initiatives.

At Issue 

Many prosecutors are reluctant to eliminate the death penalty as an option because they see it as a bargaining chip that results in capital defendants pleading guilty in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table. Commentators have noted that the use of the death penalty as a threat is concerning on both ethical and constitutional grounds.

Some opponents of capital punishment also characterize the use of life-without-parole sentences as just another kind of death sentence and note its expanded use even in non-capital cases contributed to the current problem of mass incarceration. According to a 2021 report from The Sentencing Project, the number of people serving sentences of life without parole has increased 66% since 2003; one out of seven incarcerated persons is serving a sentence of either LWOP, life with parole, or a sentence of 50 years or more. Aligning with larger racial disparities in prison sentencing, there is a disproportionate number of Black people serving LWOP sentences, according to 2020 data from the Prison Policy Initiative. The U.S. continues to have the world’s highest prison population per capita, with 629 people per 100,000 in prison, according to Penal Reform International’s 2022 Global Prison Trends. On the other hand, LWOP has been available as an option in every state that has abolished the death penalty in recent years, and some defense lawyers acknowledge that without LWOP many of their clients would be in danger of receiving death sentences.

What DPIC Offers 

Recent opinion polls note the public’s view of using the death penalty vs. alternative sentences, and DPIC has collected the results of those surveys. DPIC also provides information on state legislative efforts to adopt LWOP and examines when and how LWOP results in cases where juries cannot agree on a death sentence.

News & Developments


Mar 21, 2023

California to Close San Quentin’s Death Row as Part of a Broader Prison Reform

Death-sen­tenced pris­on­ers in California will be moved out of San Quentin State Prison (pic­tured) and placed in oth­er max­i­mum secu­ri­ty facil­i­ties, as part of a broad plan announced by Governor Gavin Newsom on March 17, 2023. The gov­er­nor seeks to trans­form” the state’s old­est prison into a one-of-a-kind facil­i­ty focused on improv­ing pub­lic safe­ty through reha­bil­i­ta­tion and edu­ca­tion.” The state launched a pilot pro­gram in 2020 allow­ing some death-row pris­on­ers to vol­un­tar­i­ly move to oth­er state pris­ons. Under that pro­gram, more than 100 death-row pris­on­ers have already been trans­ferred out…

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Jan 03, 2024

Overwhelming Percentage of Florida’s Hurst Resentencing Hearings End in Life Sentences

According to new research by the Death Penalty Information Center, 82% of Florida death-sen­tenced pris­on­ers who com­plet­ed new sen­tenc­ing pro­ceed­ings under Hurst v. Florida (2016) have been resen­tenced to life in prison with­out parole. Hurst found Florida’s death penal­ty scheme uncon­sti­tu­tion­al, and the Florida Supreme Court sub­se­quent­ly held that new death sen­tences must be unan­i­mous, neces­si­tat­ing new sen­tenc­ing hear­ings. Of the 157 cas­es DPIC pre­vi­ous­ly iden­ti­fied as Hurst-eli­gi­ble — any­one sen­tenced to death by a non-unan­i­mous jury since 2002 — about two-thirds have been resolved and one-third remain. However, in April 2023, Governor Ron DeSantis signed…

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Nov 27, 2023

Florida Judge Imposes Life Sentence for Joshua McClellan, Overriding Non-Unanimous Jury Recommendation for Death

On November 20, Florida Circuit Judge Heidi Davis sen­tenced Joshua McClellan to life in prison after a non-unan­i­mous jury returned a rec­om­men­da­tion of death in September by a 10 – 2 vote. Judge Davis not­ed the mit­i­ga­tion evi­dence pre­sent­ed by Mr. McClellan’s defense, includ­ing men­tal health eval­u­a­tions and tes­ti­mo­ny regard­ing his trau­mat­ic upbring­ing, as an expla­na­tion for her deci­sion. Mr. McClellan was one of the first defen­dants to receive a non-unan­i­mous death rec­om­men­da­tion under a new law signed ear­li­er this year by Governor and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Ron DeSantis, allow­ing death sen­tences when…

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Aug 21, 2023

Brain Scans of Tennessee Man Who Admits to Killing Eight Convince Prosecutors to Drop Death Penalty

On August 16, 2023, Michael Cummins, who was fac­ing the death penal­ty for the 2019 killings of eight indi­vid­u­als in rur­al Tennessee, pled guilty to all eight counts of first-degree mur­der in exchange for life in prison with­out parole. Sumner County District Attorney Ray Whitley told the press that he had reversed his deci­sion to seek a death sen­tence and agreed to the plea based on new evi­dence regard­ing Mr. Cummins’ men­tal health. That evi­dence includ­ed Mr. Cummins’ brain scans, which showed sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems” and impair­ment of brain activ­i­ty. DA

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Jul 31, 2023

RESOURCE HIGHLIGHT: New Restorative Justice Webpage

The Death Penalty Information Center has cre­at­ed a web­page ded­i­cat­ed to restora­tive jus­tice, a sen­tenc­ing alter­na­tive in crim­i­nal cas­es, includ­ing lim­it­ed use in death penal­ty cas­es. This resource high­lights the foun­da­tions of restora­tive jus­tice, com­mon approach­es, recent stud­ies relat­ed to the prac­tice, and exam­ples of its use. 

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Oct 13, 2022

Non-Unanimous Florida Jury Sentences Nikolas Cruz to Life Without Parole for Parkland School Shootings

A non-unan­i­mous Florida jury has returned a ver­dict of life with­out parole for Nikolas Cruz, the teen offend­er con­vict­ed of killing 17 peo­ple in the February 14, 2018 shoot­ing at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (pic­tured) in Parkland, Florida. The October 13, 2022 ver­dict, in which three jurors vot­ed to spare Cruz’s life, con­clud­ed a six-month sen­tenc­ing tri­al. Florida law, like that of near­ly every death-penal­ty state, requires a unan­i­mous jury ver­dict before a death sen­tence may be imposed.

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Sep 19, 2022

Texas Prosecutors Drop Death Penalty Against African American Man Held Eight Years Without Trial in Death of White Police Officer During Botched No-Knock Raid

Bell County pros­e­cu­tors have dropped their efforts to impose the death penal­ty on Marvin Guy (pic­tured), an African American man who has been held eight years with­out tri­al in con­nec­tion with the death of a white police offi­cer dur­ing a botched no-knock raid in Killeen, Texas in May 2014.

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Aug 30, 2022

Mother of Murdered Journalist Calls Life Sentence for ISIS Captors A Huge Victory,’ Better than the Death Penalty

On the eighth anniver­sary of the August 19, 2014 mur­der of kid­napped jour­nal­ist James Foley, a U.S. fed­er­al dis­trict court in Virginia sen­tenced his killer, Islamic State mil­i­tant El Shafee Elsheikh, to eight life sen­tences in prison. His moth­er, Diane Foley (pic­tured), a lead­ing advo­cate for Americans held hostage abroad, hailed the life sen­tence as a huge vic­to­ry” and a very impor­tant deterrent.”

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