Column: Floridians prefer life without parole over capital punishment for murderers

Published Aug. 16, 2016

Support for the death penalty is at historic 40-year lows according to the Gallup poll, which has been tracking attitudes on the issue since the 1930s. Pew Research Center's last national poll found support to be as low as 56 percent. But support for the death penalty may actually be even weaker than these polls reveal because pollsters routinely fail to ask the most telling question: Do you prefer the death penalty or life in prison without parole for persons convicted of first-degree murder?

My latest research in Florida, which is consistent with my polling in several other states, indicates that a large majority of Florida citizens have a strong preference for a sentence of life in prison without parole over the death penalty when they are given the option of lifetime imprisonment in a survey.

I conducted a recent poll of a representative group of nearly 500 jury-eligible Floridians. It showed that when respondents are asked to choose between the two legally available options — the death penalty and life in prison without parole — Floridians clearly favor, by a strong majority (57.7 percent to 43.3 percent), life imprisonment without parole over death. The overall preference was true across racial groups, genders, educational levels and religious affiliation.

In this sense, citizens in Florida are like their counterparts across the country in their preference for life without parole over the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, and also in their doubts about certain aspects of our nation's system of death sentencing.

For instance, my research also showed that a majority of Floridians oppose sentencing the seriously mentally ill to death; they do not believe the death penalty deters murders; and they believe that most religious opinion is against capital punishment.

This strong preference for life without parole exists even though two-thirds of respondents (68.9 percent) mistakenly believe that the death penalty is cheaper to administer than life without parole, something that virtually every study of the issue has indicated is incorrect. As this misconception is debunked, it may well strengthen the already strong preference for life without parole.

A sizable minority of Floridians (40.2 percent) also erroneously believe that persons serving life without parole will get out of prison at some point. If more citizens were disabused of this mistaken belief, this too would likely increase Floridians' preference for life without parole.

Perhaps the most remarkable finding from my research was the fact that support for the death penalty plummeted to just 29 percent when respondents were told that the prisoners 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. Support eroded even further when respondents were also told that the money currently spent on capital trials — at least $1 million additionally per case — could be used instead to investigate and prosecute unsolved rapes and murders. In that scenario, three out of four Floridians favored life without parole over the death penalty.

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What this research demonstrates is that Floridians' attitudes on the death penalty are complex. Their preferences change depending on the range of options presented to them. The go-to polling question, "Do you support the death penalty?" rarely captures the nuance of how voters are thinking about this issue. That question offers a limited and often flawed snapshot of voter attitudes, capturing only abstract support or opposition, but failing to expose strong preferences and deeper pragmatic thinking.

When Floridians are asked to decide between the legally available options for persons convicted of first-degree murder — the death penalty or life in prison without parole — my research shows that a substantial majority prefer life.

Craig Haney is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-director of the University of California Criminal Justice & Health Consortium. His research was conducted between April and July and involved more than 500 jury-eligible Floridians. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.