5 facts about the death penalty
Nebraska this week became the 19th state to ban the death penalty – a practice that a majority of Americans still support, but in declining numbers. Earlier this month, a federal jury sentenced one of the Boston Marathon bombers to death, despite a poll showing that the local public favored life imprisonment instead. And by the end of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide a case involving whether Oklahoma’s lethal injection methods amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
Although there have been fewer executions in recent years than there were in the 1990s, 31 states still have the death penalty on their books, as does the federal government. Here are five facts about the issue:
1Support has fallen, but a majority of Americans still back the death penalty. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in March finds that 56% favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 38% oppose it. But support is as low as it’s been in 40 years. Much of the decline in support over the past two decades has come among Democrats. Currently, just 40% of Democrats favor the death penalty, while 56% are opposed. Republican support for the death penalty (77%) has changed less dramatically.
2Death row executions peaked in 1999 and have fallen ever since. Only 31 states currently allow for the death penalty, and seven states have repealed the punishment since 2004. Today, there are about 600 fewer prisoners on death row than there were at the end of 2000. Nationwide, death sentences are becoming rarer. Still, you can see from our map that executions are prevalent in the South, with Texas as the standout. California has the largest death row population, mostly because it still convicts people to die but has rarely executed them in recent years.
3China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are among the 55 known countries that sentenced someone to death last year, according to Amnesty International, a human rights organization that opposes the practice. Although the exact number of executions in China is unknown, the organization says there were 607 executions in 22 countries in 2014 – a decrease of 22% compared with the year before. Although some countries, such as China and Iran, are not transparent about their figures, the organization says China executed more than 1,000 people last year; Iran executed at least 289; Saudi Arabia executed at least 90; and Iraq executed at least 61. By comparison, 35 people were executed in the U.S. in 2014.
4Americans harbor doubts about how the death penalty is applied and whether it deters serious crime. About six-in-ten say the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes. About half say that minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death for similar crimes, compared with 41% who say a death sentence is equally likely for whites and minorities.
A large majority (84%) of those who oppose the death penalty say there is a risk that an innocent person will be put to death. Even a majority of death penalty supporters (63%) say there’s a risk of taking an innocent life.
5There is a racial divide in opinions on the death penalty in the U.S. About six-in-ten whites (63%) favor the death penalty, compared with 34% of blacks and 45% of Hispanics. There are also disagreements along racial lines about which groups are most likely to get the death penalty. Fully 77% of blacks say minorities are more likely than whites to receive the death penalty for similar crimes. Whites are evenly divided: 46% say minorities are disproportionately sentenced to death, while an identical percentage see no racial disparities.
Note: This is an update to a post originally published April 29, 2015.
Category: 5 Facts
Sara Kehaulani Goo is a senior digital editor at Pew Research Center.