October 21, 2016

U.S. on track for fewest executions since 1991

With public support for the death penalty at its lowest point in more than four decades, the U.S. is on track for its fewest executions in a quarter century.

So far in 2016, 17 inmates have been executed, according to a database maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center. Three additional executions are scheduled for this year. If all three proceed as planned, the year’s 20 executions will be the fewest since 1991, when 14 were recorded. The U.S. has executed at least 28 people in each year since 1992.

Just five states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas – account for the 17 completed and three scheduled executions this year. This represents the fewest states to carry out executions in any year since 1983. In 1999, by comparison, 20 states conducted executions. 

One reason for the national decline in executions has been a decrease in Texas, which is scheduled to execute eight inmates this year, a 20-year low. Texas has long been the nation’s leader in executions, carrying out nearly five times as many as any other state since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. During that span, Texas carried out 538 executions, compared with 112 in Oklahoma and 111 in Virginia.

Legal and practical challenges have prevented some states from carrying out executions this year. Ohio, for example, has not executed anyone since 2014 amid difficulties acquiring the drugs needed to conduct lethal injections. The state announced this month that it will resume executions next year, using a new protocol.

The number of states with the death penalty on the books – currently 30 – also could decline this year. Voters in California and Nebraska will decide Nov. 8 whether to eliminate or retain their capital punishment laws.

In California, which has the nation’s largest death row, Proposition 62 would eliminate the death penalty and replace it with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment without parole. The measure would apply retroactively and, if approved, resentence the more than 700 people on death row to life without parole. A competing measure, Proposition 66, would retain capital punishment but change legal procedures related to death penalty appeals. (If both measures pass, the one with more “yes” votes will prevail.)

In Nebraska, voters will revisit a May 2015 decision by the state Legislature to abolish capital punishment and replace it with a maximum penalty of life without parole for the crime of murder. Referendum 426 asks whether to retain or repeal the state law that eliminated the death penalty.

A third state, Oklahoma, will also vote on a proposal related to capital punishment. Question 776 would solidify the state’s death penalty against legal or legislative challenges by adding provisions to the state constitution, including a declaration that capital punishment “is not cruel and unusual punishment.”

A Pew Research Center survey conducted Aug. 23-Sept. 2 found that 49% of Americans support the death penalty for those convicted of murder, compared with 42% who oppose it. While the share of supporters reached a four-decade low, voters remain divided along party lines. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Republicans favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder, compared with 34% of Democrats.

Both major-party presidential candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, favor the death penalty. The federal government has not executed anyone since 2003, carrying out just three executions in the modern era of capital punishment.

Topics: Criminal Justice, Death and Dying, Domestic Affairs and Policy, Political Attitudes and Values, Religion and U.S. Politics, State and Local Government

  1. is a writer/editor at Pew Research Center.