U.S. expert urges death penalty rethink

Criminologist: option of life without parole will change public opinion


While 80 percent of the Japanese public is in favor of capital punishment, support for executions would drop if life without parole sentences were also an option, according to an American criminologist who visited Tokyo recently.

Such, at least, was the case in the U.S., said professor Kimberly Kempf-Leonard, director of the Center for the Study of Crime, Delinquency and Corrections at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

The key is how you ask people their opinion about the death penalty, she contends.

“When the question was being asked only as ‘Are you in favor of the death penalty for horrible offenses?’ they would say yes. But if you ask, ‘Do you think there are mistakes?’ then they would say, yes, we should question that,” she said.

“And then if you ask, ‘If you could choose for this situation, death penalty or life without the possibility of parole,’ then it drops down. The majority of the citizens are not in favor of the death penalty.”

According to Kempf-Leonard, 80 percent of U.S. citizens supported the death penalty in the 1990s, even as criminologists argued that execution does not serve as a deterrent.

But the tide turned in the new millennium when the Supreme Court handed down several decisions that restricted capital punishment. DNA tests also began revealing that serious mistakes had led to the incarceration of innocent people. Since then, Kempf-Leonard said, the public has grown increasingly skeptical of capital punishment.

The 80 percent support rate in 1994 has dropped to 65 percent today, she said, adding that death sentences are on the decline while the number of sentences for life in prison without parole are rising.

Kempf-Leonard joined a consortium of researchers in the U.S. called the Capital Jury Project that since 1991 has studied the decision-making processes of jurors in capital cases in 14 states.

“The findings of the study were almost uniform in all states. It was that (the jurors) did not understand what they were doing,” she said. “They misunderstood the instructions. . . . Most often they thought that life sentence didn’t mean life (without parole), and that was the main reason they gave death. And I believe this is the situation in Japan.”

Japan, one of the few developed countries to still carry out executions, has yet to introduce life without the possibility of parole as an alternative to the death penalty. But last year a bipartisan group of 140 lawmakers, including those both for and against the death penalty, began to consider introducing this alternative.

The lawmakers’ concern was that the choice between the death sentence and the second-most severe punishment — life with the possibility of parole after 10 years (although inmates in reality tend to serve much longer) — will be too daunting for citizens, who will soon be participating in trials as lay judges.

Under the “saibanin” system, six citizens will join three professional judges in trying heinous cases. They will participate in both the process of deciding the facts and handing down sentences by a majority vote.

But discussion among lawmakers on revising sentencing guidelines broke down after Prime Minister Taro Aso replaced Yasuo Fukuda, who abruptly resigned in September. These talks are only likely to revive after the system starts running.

Kempf-Leonard, in Japan from late January to early February at the invitation of the Justice Ministry and a foundation working on correction issues, noted that life without parole was also introduced in the U.S. as an alternative to the death penalty.

It was supported by those on both sides of the death penalty divide. Currently, 48 states and the federal system have life without parole, she said.

But while it is increasingly being chosen to punish heinous offenders, the professor said the U.S. is learning that life without parole has its own issues.

“When you have a criminal justice policy, one of the things that you should be hoping is that it has some effect on the crime rate,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be evidence that the crime rate is affected by this policy.”

Kempf-Leonard noted that more people than originally intended are being given life without parole. While the majority of lifers have committed murder, the rest are in for lesser felonies. Also, many minors are serving life without parole for first offenses, she said.

“Rather than an alternative, this is the net widening. We got more people.”

Kempf-Leonard predicts that use of the life-without-parole penalty will decline in the U.S. as lifers age and their health care expenses become too burdensome for many states.

Sentences could be shortened and more cases of community supervision and parole will be utilized, she said, because in general the elderly present less of a threat to society. In fact, out of some 7.2 million adult offenders, roughly 5 million are on probation or parole and more than 2 million are in prison today, she said.

“They’ll still incarcerate a lot of people in my country, but I think we are recognizing that shorter term has the same impact as the longer term,” she said.

While acknowledging it is difficult to predict how the discussion of punishment and corrections of heinous crimes will go in Japan, Kempf-Leonard sited the findings from the Capital Jury Project and stressed that legal professionals must do their best to explain the lay judge system in simple terms.

“I value the jury system in the U.S. and it’s important for people to be judged by their peers. But it’s important that the judges understand that people don’t know the legal jargon. You have to get to their level and communicate that clearly,” she said.