Sentencing Alternatives

Views on Sentencing Alternatives

General Public Opinion

A 2022 poll of 1,009 Americans by the Gallup found that 55% supported the death penalty, while 42% opposed the death penalty. Overall, about one-third (35%) of Democrats said they favored the death penalty, while 77% of Republicans said they favored the death penalty. A 2022 poll by the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at Louisiana State University found that 51% of Louisiana respondents prefer life without parole, versus 43% who chose the death penalty as the appropriate punishment for a person convicted of murder. A 2021 poll conducted in Texas by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling in June 2021 indicate that three-quarters of Dallas County voters preferred some form of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty as the punishment for people convicted of murder, while two-thirds of Dallas County voters preferred one of the life-sentencing options. Dallas County was 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 Texas results are consistent with recent polls in other death penalty states, such as KentuckyOklahoma, 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 2011 analysis of news articles by Thomas J. Mowen and Ryan D. Schroeder including statements by or on behalf of victims’ family members between 1992 and 2009, indicates an increasing resistance to capital punishment from these individuals during the given period. This study found that “opposition to capital punishment has increased following the rise of retribution and closure justification for the death penalty, while media coverage of this family member opposition to capital punishment have been significantly lower in both scope and primacy during the same period. Highlighting a multitude of cases, the authors determined “that overwhelmingly the newspaper reflects that the death penalty is not what most [family members] desire. Rather, many court systems, judges, lawyers, and juries insist that the death penalty is what the victims’ family should want”(original emphasis).

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.” A 2013 study by Corey Burton and Richard Tewksbury analyzed 138 victims’ family member statements on executions between 2006 and 2011. Results indicate that 35% of family members believed the execution of their loved one’s murdered represented justice, while just 31% of family members believed the execution brought them closer to healing and closure.

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.