A recent poll of Florida residents showed that 57.7 percent favor life imprisonment without parole over the death penalty for persons convicted of first-degree murder.
Researcher Craig Haney asked a representative group of nearly 500 jury-eligible Floridians to choose between two legally available punishments for first-degree murder: the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole. The overall preference for life without parole was consistent across racial groups, genders, educational levels, and religious affiliations.
Professor Haney reported that this strong preference for life witout parole exists even though many respondents hold mistaken beliefs that favor capital punishment: nearly 70 percent mistakenly believe the death penalty costs less to administer than life without parole, and 40 percent wrongly believe that people sentenced to life without parole will be released from prison.
Support for life without parole surged even higher when respondents were told that people serving life without parole would be required to work in prison and could be directed to give part of their earnings to the victims’ families. When they were also told that the additional money spent on capital trials (at least $1 million per year) could be used to investigate and prosecute unsolved crimes, three out of four Floridians chose life without parole over the death penalty.
Professor Haney’s findings are consistent with the latest national polls, which reflect consistently declining support for the death penalty. Last year, juries returned the fewest number of new death sentences (49) since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
In a report released this week, the Fair Punishment Project explains that the death penalty today is actively used only in a small number of outlier counties. Just 16 counties, representing half of one percent of all counties in the United States, have imposed five or more death sentences since 2010.
Researchers found that counties that use the death penalty the most are plagued by prosecutorial misconduct, bad lawyers, and racial bias. “Many of the 16 counties where the death penalty is prevalent have a criminal-justice system” in which “[w]hites retain control to a striking degree, despite the presence of sizable numbers of African-Americans or Latinos,” Emily Bazelon wrote for the New York Times.
The report concludes that overzealous prosecutors, inadequate defense lawyering, and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion “regularly produce two types of unjust outcomes which disproportionately impact people of color: the wrongful conviction of innocent people, and the excessive punishment of persons who are young or suffer from severe mental illnesses, brain damage, trauma, and intellectual disabilities.”