Document Type


Publication Date




Source Publication

Journal of Empirical Legal Studies

Source ISSN


Original Item ID

DOI: 10.1111/jels.12281


The number of Americans serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole ("LWOP") has grown rapidly over the past generation and now exceeds 50,000. Yet, little empirical research has been conducted on the determinants of LWOP sentences. The dearth of research on LWOP sentencing stands in sharp contrast to the many dozens of studies that have been conducted on the determinants of death sentences–studies that have consistently found that race, gender, and other questionable factors may influence sentencing outcomes. The present study is the first to employ a similar methodology to identify both case‐ and county‐level variables that are correlated with the imposition of discretionary LWOP sentences. More specifically, we have assessed the relationship between fifty different variables and LWOP decisions in 450 homicide cases in Wisconsin between 2001 and 2018. In our final model, we find seven variables that are correlated with sentencing outcomes. Of particular note, we find that judge and prosecutor personal characteristics are statistically significant correlates of LWOP decisions. We also find a significantly greater likelihood that LWOP sentences will be imposed in counties that are more Republican. We conclude with a proposal for a new LWOP sentencing process that may help to ensure that this very severe sentence is reserved for the most serious crimes committed by the most dangerous defendants.


Accepted version. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2 (June 2021): 377-420. DOI. © 2021 Wiley. Used with permission.

wheelock_15135acc.docx (191 kB)
ADA Accessible Version