Sentencing Alternatives

Effects of Sentencing Alternatives

Public Opinion

A 2015 poll of 2,695 Americans by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 52% preferred life without parole, while 47% preferred the death penalty. Overall, about two-thirds (65%) of Democrats said they preferred life without parole, while 67% of Republicans said they preferred the death penalty. A 2016 poll by Craig Haney, Professor of Psychology at the University of California - Santa Cruz found that 57% of Floridians prefer life without parole, versus 43% who chose the death penalty as the appropriate punishment for a person convicted of murder. Two polls conducted in Florida by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling in January 2018 indicate that three-quarters of Miami-Dade County respondents preferred some form of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty as the punishment for people convicted of murder, while two-thirds of Pinellas County respondents preferred one of the life-sentencing options. Both Miami-Dade and Pinellas were among the 2% of counties that DPIC reported in 2013 accounted for more than half of all death-row prisoners and executions in the United States.

The Florida results are consistent with recent polls in other death penalty states, such as Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Utah, where a 2017 poll showed that a majority of residents support replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without possibility of parole.

Victims’ Families

While the death penalty is often characterized as providing justice and closure for family members of murder victims, family members share no single, uniform response to the death penalty. A 2007 study published by Scott Vollum, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Sociology & Criminology at University of Minnesota, found that just 2.5% of co-victims—family members of murder victims—reported achieving closure as a result of capital punishment. 20.1% said the execution did not help them heal. A 2012 Marquette University Law School study reported that co-victims had improved physical and psychological health and greater satisfaction with the legal system in cases where perpetrators received life sentences, rather than death sentences. The authors of that study said co-victims, “may prefer the finality of a life sentence and the obscurity into which the defendant will quickly fall, to the continued uncertainty and publicity of the death penalty.”

Families of Defendants

A 2016 article for the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform by Professor Michael Radelet of the University of Colorado at Boulder describes the retributive effects of the death penalty on the family, friends, and attorneys of death row prisoners. Radelet compares these impacts to the effect of life without parole and argues “that the death penalty’s added punishment over LWOP often punishes the family just as much as the inmate, and after the execution the full brunt of the punishment falls on the family. This added impact disproportionately punishes women and children.” These effects on people other than the inmate, he writes, “undermine the principle that the criminal justice system punishes only the guilty and never the innocent. The death penalty affects everyone who knows, cares for, or works with the death row inmate.”

Members of the capital juries have considered these effects when deliberating whether to sentence a defendant to die. In January 2018, a Wake County, North Carolina jury rejected the death penalty for 24-year-old Donovan Jevonte Richardson and sentenced him to two life sentences, marking the ninth consecutive Wake County capital trial to result in a life verdict. In light of the mitigating evidence that Richardson’s father abandoned him and refused to acknowledge his son until after a paternity test, jurors concluded that executing Richardson could have an unnecessary, detrimental impact on his young sons.