The death penalty in the US: What the data says

Published on August 3rd 2019

In July, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the federal government would resume carrying out the death penalty, 16 years since the last time it completed an execution.

Here’s a look at the data behind capital punishment in the United States, specifically in the decades following the 1972 Furman v. Georgia Supreme Court ruling which effectively banned the death penalty until state and federal laws were passed instituting new guidelines on how people get sentenced to death.

The death penalty is mostly a state, not a federal issue

Since 1977, when executions were permitted to resume after the 1976 Gregg v. Georgia Supreme Court case, the federal government has had few death penalty cases when compared with the states. The federal government re-established a death penalty in 1988.

The last execution for a federal crime occurred in 2003. The federal government executed only two others, both in 2001, since the Supreme Court allowed death penalties to resume in certain states in 1997. As of July, there were 62 people on death row at the federal level.

Between 1977 and 2017 — the latest year available in U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data — 34 states executed 1,462 people. The Texas state criminal system accounts for 37% of all executions.

At the end of 2017, there were 2,644 convicted people on death row at any state level. California led all states in 2017 with 742 people on death row, though it has executed just 13 people since 1977, with the last one occurring in 2006. (California Gov. Gavin Newsom put a moratorium on capital punishment in March 2019.)

In July, the Justice Department announced plans to schedule five executions to be completed under a single-drug lethal injection format used by three states that rank in the top five in executions since 1970

The number of executions have fallen

The total number of executions have fallen considerably from a high in 1999 of 98. In 2017, there were 23 executions that took place in eight states. Seven of them occurred in Texas.

Executions by geography

The death penalty is currently legal in 29 states, though some states where it is legal, like California and Pennsylvania, have moratoriums on its use.

In other states, the use of drugs in lethal injections have brought executions to a standstill Oklahoma ranks as third in terms of states executing people since 1977 at 112. Still, it hasn’t executed a person since 2015, when the state used the wrong drug in an execution. Arizona, where 37 executions have taken place, hasn’t had one since 2014, after a botched lethal injection execution. Some pharmaceutical companies have restricted their drugs from being used in executions.

Fewer people are being sent to death row and more are coming off

While there were 2,703 people on death row in 2017, that figure is 25% lower than the 3,601 people facing a death sentence in 2000.

Every year since, there have been more people taken off of death row, due to legal or other reasons, then sentenced to death

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Sentencing and removal of death sentences

Proportion of black population on death row higher than prison as a whole

Of more than 1.5 million prisoners nationwide in 2016, 33% were black and non-Hispanic. (Black people make up about 15% of the general population.)

On death row, about 42% of the population nationwide was black in 2017. (NOTE: The death row data includes people who are both black and Hispanic.) That percentage has fallen since the 1972 Supreme Court case. In 1970, black people made up 53% of those sentenced to death.

Race of those under sentence of death