Crime And Punishment – A Brief Overview Of The Death Penalty And Death Row

June 14, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released its report concerning the application and execution of capital punishments in the U.S. in 2019. As of the year under review, capital punishment was legal in 32 states and on the federal level. By their estimation, as of the end of 2019, there were 2,570 inmates on death row in 29 state and Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities. A total of 31 people were sentenced to death and sent to prisons in 11 states and institutions run by the BOP, and 22 prisoners were executed across seven states.

According to the BJS, “capital punishment” – commonly known as the “death penalty” – refers to “the process of sentencing convicted offenders to death for the most serious crimes (capital crimes) and carrying out that sentence.” Usually only a particularly heinous murder charge results in a death sentence, though what falls under this category varies by state and on the federal level. The term “being on death row” refers to those who have been sentenced but are still awaiting execution, mostly as a reason of their appeals process not being exhausted.

Graphic Source: BJS

The number of people incarcerated on death row in 2019 was 2% lower than the number at the end of 2018. It was also the 19th straight year of a decline in that figure, with the peak being 3,601 in 2000. Of those living with a death sentence, 1,443 were white; 1,064 were black; and 63 were of another ethnicity/race.

In terms of executions, the 22 executed in 2019 was also significantly lower than the peak of 98 in 1999. Executions in Texas accounted for 41% of the total, with 9 carried out in that state alone. Across the system, 65 prisoners were removed from death row by means other than execution.

Methods of execution included lethal injection (authorized in all 32 states with capital punishment provisions), electrocution (authorized in 9), lethal gas (3), hanging (2), firing squad (3), and nitrogen hypoxia (3). 

The number of prisoners on death row decreased the most in California (by 11), followed by Pennsylvania (8), Texas (7), and Tennessee (6). North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina increased the number of prisoners on death row by 3, 2, and 1, respectively.

The statistics were also broken down demographically by the BJS. Of all the death row inmates in 2019, 98% were men; 56% were white and 41% were black. Of those with known ethnicities, 15% were of Hispanic origin. The average prisoner had been on death row for 18.7 years and the average length spent on death row among those executed was 22 years. Around 68% of those sentenced to death had prior felony convictions, with 9.5% having prior homicide convictions. Around 64% of white prisoners and 73.1% of black prisoners had prior felony convictions.

The death penalty has long been debated in the U.S. The Supreme Court suspended it in 1972, voiding 40 death penalty statutes, but then reinstated it in 1976. Over the years, the highest court in the land has made a few significant rulings on the constitutionality of the death penalty, including in regards to which crimes it is reasonably applicable to, the proportionality of the punishment versus the crime, and whether those mentally incapacitated can be put to death.

The controversy around the death penalty is multifaceted. It is associated with higher bills for the taxpayers (running into the billions of dollars), as capital murder trials tend to be more expensive and as the appeals process is quite lengthy and costly. Further, there is an angle of moral justification and arbitrariness involved, as it regards taking a life and is based on the individual prosecutor, judge, or juror.

Public support for the death penalty has been declining for three decades now, from a peak in the 1990s, when – The New York Times reports – almost four out of every five Americans supported it. However, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and released in April this year, 60% of American adults still support the death penalty for murder convictions, with 27% among that indicating they “strongly favor it.” Only about 39% oppose it, with 15% of those strongly opposed. The public seems to strongly believe that the death penalty is morally justifiable in cases of murder, with 64% supporting capital punishment in murder cases.

With that in mind, though, 78% of Americans (nearly eight-in-ten) say that there is “some risk that an innocent person will be put to death.” A large swathe are concerned about how the death penalty is administered and whether it is really a deterrent for future crimes. Around 63% of Americans say it is not a deterrent, with that number being about 48% even among those who support the death penalty. According to one survey, 88% of the nation’s top criminological experts said that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder.

In 2019, New Hampshire struck down its death penalty law, but left one man on death row, due to the fact that the repeal was prospective. The New Mexico Supreme Court also declared the state’s death penalty clause unconstitutional, and, as a result, the two prisoners who had been on death row have now been sentenced to life in prison instead.

In May this year, South Carolina legislators voted to go ahead with reinstating death by firing squad as one of the methods of executing inmates on death row. This was on the heels of a 10-year moratorium on executions as a result of the state’s inability to procure the chemical needed for administering a lethal injection. Two inmates are suing the state on the grounds that using a firing squad is unconstitutional as that was not a legal means of execution when they were sentenced.

In March this year, Virginia became the 23rd state to abolish capital punishment, a move hailed by many as historic, given the fact that it had the second highest number of executions in the country, behind only Texas. To many, this is a signal of “the erosion” of capital punishment as a sentence all over the country. Since its initial establishment as one of the original colonies, Virginia has executed nearly 1,400 people; 113 of those have come since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

There are three bills currently passing through various committees in the U.S. Congress – two in the House (H.R.97 and H.R.262) and one in the Senate (S.582) – to abolish or reform the federal capital punishment provision.

The BJS publishes its capital punishment report annually and tracks national and state-level counts of persons given the death sentence and the number executed. The process of data collection is time-intensive and is mainly collected through administration records and interviews with inmates as disclosures are not legally mandated.

Though 2020 numbers will not be released until next year, the BJS says that initial estimates indicate that 17 inmates were executed last year, by five states and the BOP. The latter was responsible for 10 of those, followed by Texas with 3. Of those executed, 10 were white, 5 black, 1 Hispanic and 1 Native American. They were all men.

The the Death Penalty Information Center maintains an ongoing list of the legislation concerning capital punishment at the state level, including bills to repeal, reform, or expand it.