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 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 1,627 cases in which LWOP was imposed from 1995 to 2017, 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. This first empirical analysis of adult LWOP sentences finds important local variations in its imposition. We find that as the homicide rate increases within a county, we observe fewer LWOP sentences. We find that fewer LWOP sentences are predicted to occur as the number of black victim homicides increase in a county, but no such relationship is found when considering the number of white victim homicides. Finally, we find a strong path dependency and concentration of LWOP sentences in counties, where counties that have imposed LWOP sentences in the past are more likely to continue to do so. 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.
Brandon L. Garrett et al., Life Without Parole Sentencing in North Carolina, 99 North Carolina Law Review 279-332 (2021)
Library of Congress Subject Headings
Sentences (Criminal procedure), Prosecution--Decision making, Life imprisonment, Parole, Discrimination in criminal justice administration, Empirical