CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Garrett et al. on Life Without Parole Sentencing

Brandon L. GarrettKarima ModjadidiKristen Renberg and Travis Seale-Carlisle (Duke University School of Law, Duke University School of Law, Duke University School of Law and affiliation not provided to SSRN) have posted an abstract of Life Without Parole Sentencing on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
What explains the puzzle of life without parole (LWOP) sentencing in the United States? In the past two decades, LWOP sentences have reached record highs, with over 50,000 prisoners serving LWOP. Yet during this same time period, homicide rates have steadily declined. The U.S. Supreme Court has limited the use of juvenile LWOP in Eighth Amendment rulings. Further, death sentences have steeply declined, reaching record lows. Although research has examined drivers of incarceration patterns for certain sentences, there has been little research on LWOP imposition. To shed light on what might explain the sudden rise of LWOP, we examine characteristics of the more than 1,500 LWOP cases in North Carolina, one of the states that imposes the largest numbers of these sentences. We begin by analyzing defendant race, crime, and sentence patterns by county. We associate LWOP with homicide rates, and examine interactions between homicide, victim race, and prior LWOP sentencing.
We also took advantage of unusual data available in North Carolina, due to the Racial Justice Act, to compare LWOP cases in which the death penalty was and was not sought. We examine changes before and after reforms, focused on the death penalty, were adopted in 2001. This first empirical analysis of adult LWOP sentences finds important local variations in its imposition. We find a strong path dependency and concentration of LWOP sentences in prosecution districts, suggesting that prosecutorial discretion explains the rise in the use of such sentences. We also find that LWOP sentencing is affected by race of homicide victims, and that the race of the defendant has a statistically significant relationship with LWOP when prosecutors seek the death penalty. We find criminal justice reforms adopted in 2001 sharply reduced racial disparities in LWOP imposition, but they did not slow down the rate of LWOP sentencing. These findings have implications for efforts to reconsider the most severe sentences in the U.S., and they suggest that prosecutorial discretion in seeking long sentences will be important subjects for future research and policy.

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