Attitude toward Capital Punishment Is Related to Capital and Non-Capital Sentencing

By McKelvie, Stuart J. | North American Journal of Psychology, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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Attitude toward Capital Punishment Is Related to Capital and Non-Capital Sentencing


McKelvie, Stuart J., North American Journal of Psychology


Two hundred and twenty eight Canadian undergraduates read one of two crime vignettes that varied in how justified a murder seemed to be, then made capital (death penalty), capital-related (method of execution), and non capital (prison term, granting of parole, waiting period before parole) sentencing recommendations. Compared to people with a negative attitude toward capital punishment, people with a positive attitude were more severe for both the capital and non capital judgments. They were also harsher for the less than for the more justifiable crime, whereas people with a negative attitude gave similar judgments in each case. Women were generally harsher than men. It is suggested that members of juries chosen to be death-qualified may be biased in any non capital recommendations and that attitude toward capital punishment may reflect other personality traits and values that determine how generally harsh a person's recommended punishment will be.

When a defendant is found guilty, the judgment and subsequent sentence should be based on evidential factors such as crime seriousness and the degree of criminal responsibility (Mazzella & Feingold, 1994). That is, using legally-admissable evidence, punishment should be harsher for crimes that are more serious than those that are less serious, and for people who planned the crime and carried it out intentionally than for those who acted less deliberately. Severity of punishment might also depend on the circumstances in which the crime was committed, particularly if the defendant is judged to have had some justification for committing the crime. Other extralegal factors may also influence offender treatment. Some of these, such as the employment status or sex of the defendant, may be appropriate on utilitarian grounds because they are thought to predict recidivism (Gebotys & Roberts, 1987). For example, an employed person has a lower risk of re-offending than an unemployed person and so may be given a lighter sentence than an unemployed person. However, other factors, such as defendant attractiveness (Mazzella & Feingold, 1994), represent bias and are unacceptable. For example, people who are more attractive have been judged more leniently than people who are less attractive (Mazzella & Feingold, 1994).

These factors refer to the offender, but some refer to the judge and jury, who are often permitted considerable discretion when deciding punishment (Wheeler, Weisburd & Bode, 1982). One of these personal characteristics is attitude toward capital punishment, which may be an acceptable or an unacceptable extralegal factor, depending on the nature of the sentence. For example, as long as a death penalty recommendation follows the law, courts in the United States accept that jurors' attitude towards capital punishment will be related to their verdict, because the death penalty could never be rendered by people who are not "death qualified" (O'Neil, Patry, & Penrod, 2004). However, it would not be appropriate for attitude towards capital punishment to influence non capital sentences.

Furthermore, it would not be appropriate for any sentencing decision to be related to subject factors such as the sex, personality traits or political values of people making judgments. Unfortunately, there is evidence of this kind of bias. For sex, men are usually harsher than women when recommending the death penalty in a specific case (Honeyman & Ogloff, 1996). Although studies show no relationship between sex and length of prison sentence (McKelvie, Mitchell, Arnot, & Sullivan, 1993; Riedel, 1993), some show that men are harsher (McKelvie, 2002) and others show that women are harsher (McNamara, Vattano, & Viney, 1993).

With regard to personality and values, people who are high in authoritarianism have recommended more severe punishment than those who are low (Gerbasi, Zuckerman, & Reis, 1977), particularly if they perceive themselves to have different attitudes than the defendant (Mitchell & Byrne, 1973).

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