April 24, 2017

5 facts about the death penalty

Capital punishment is legal in a majority of U.S. states, including in two states – California and Nebraska – where voters decided to retain it in the 2016 election. Nationally, however, public support for the death penalty has fallen in recent years, as has the number of executions.

The death penalty has been back in the news recently as Arkansas carried out its first execution since 2005 – one of eight inmates the state originally planned to put to death over the course of 11 days this month. Courts have since intervened and temporarily halted some of the executions.

As the debate over the death penalty continues in the U.S. and worldwide, here are five facts about the issue:

1The annual number of U.S. executions peaked at 98 in 1999 and has fallen sharply in the years since. In 2016, 20 inmates were executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. That’s the lowest annual total since 1991, when 14 people were executed. Just five states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas – accounted for all executions in 2016, compared with 20 states in 1999.

2For the first time in a decade, the U.S. was not among the top five countries in executions in 2016, according to Amnesty International, a human rights organization that opposes the practice. The U.S. ranked seventh internationally, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt. Overall, there were at least 1,032 executions in 23 nations in 2016, with just four countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan – accounting for 87% of the total. The international total excludes figures from China, which does not publish information about its use of capital punishment but may well carry out more executions than all other countries combined. Indeed, the Cornell University Law School estimated that the Chinese executed 2,400 people in 2015.

While the overall number of global executions was down 37% from 2015, it remained higher than the average recorded for the prior decade, and the number of death sentences reached a record high of 3,117 in 2016.

3Support for the death penalty in the U.S. has fallen dramatically in the past two decades, but more Americans still favor than oppose it. A Pew Research Center poll in August and September 2016 found that 49% favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 42% oppose it. But support is at its lowest level in more than 40 years. Democrats account for much of the decline in support over the past two decades. In 2016, just 34% of Democrats favored the death penalty, compared with 72% of Republicans.

4Americans harbor doubts about how the death penalty is applied and whether it deters serious crime. In a Pew Research Center survey from 2015, about six-in-ten adults said the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes. About half also said that minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death for similar crimes, compared with 41% who said a death sentence is equally likely for both. About seven-in-ten adults (71%) said there is a risk that an innocent person will be put to death, including 84% of those who oppose the death penalty. Even a majority of death penalty supporters (63%) said there’s a risk of taking an innocent life.

5There are racial and gender divides in opinions on the death penalty in the U.S. A majority of whites (57%) favor the death penalty, compared with 29% of blacks and 36% of Hispanics, according to Pew Research Center survey data from 2016. Also, men are more likely than women to favor capital punishment (55% vs. 43%).

Note: This is an update to a post published May 28, 2015, written by Sara Kehaulani Goo, then a senior digital editor at Pew Research Center.

Related posts:

U.S. ends year with fewest executions since 1991 (2016)

Support for death penalty lowest in more than four decades

Category: 5 Facts

Topics: Death Penalty, Criminal Justice, Religion and U.S. Politics

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.