Life 'With' or 'Without'?: An Empirical Study of Homicide Sentencing
Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Forthcoming
54 Pages Posted: 27 Apr 2021
Date Written: April 26, 2021
The number of Americans serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole (“LWOP”) has grown rapidly over the past generation and now exceeds 50,000. Yet, little empirical research has been conducted on the determinants of LWOP sentences. The dearth of research on LWOP sentencing stands in sharp contrast to the many dozens of studies that have been conducted on the determinants of death sentences—studies that have consistently found that race, gender, and other questionable factors may influence sentencing outcomes. The present study is the first to employ a similar methodology to identify both case- and county-level variables that are correlated with the imposition of discretionary LWOP sentences.
More specifically, we have assessed the relationship between fifty different variables and LWOP decisions in 450 homicide cases in Wisconsin between 2001 and 2018. In our final model, we find seven variables that are correlated with sentencing outcomes. Of particular note, we find that judge and prosecutor personal characteristics are statistically significant correlates of LWOP decisions. We also find a significantly greater likelihood that LWOP sentences will be imposed in counties that are more Republican. We conclude with a proposal for a new LWOP sentencing process that may help to ensure that this very severe sentence is reserved for the most serious crimes committed by the most dangerous defendants.
Keywords: sentencing, life without the possibility of parole, homicide, criminal law, empirical legal research, correlation
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