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The death penalty in the U.S.: What you need to know



Zelda Caldwell - published on 08/09/18

With fewer executions in the U.S., support for death penalty has declined over last 20 years.

Pope Francis’ recent decision to change the Catechism of the Catholic Church to make capital punishment “inadmissible” comes as the death penalty in the U.S. is rarer and – over the long term – increasingly unpopular among the American public.

While the number of Americans who support the death penalty has increased recently, it has fallen significantly over the last 20 years, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. This decline comes during a period when the number of executions has decreased dramatically.

Here’s the data on the death penalty in the U.S., including data from a Pew summary published last week:

• The number of executions has fallen dramatically since 1999

In 1999, the number of executions in the U.S. peaked at 98. In 2017, 23 people were put to death. These executions were conducted by eight states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Texas and Virginia. In comparison, in 1999, the 98 executions took place in 20 states.

•19 states have abolished the death penalty

States that have made the death penalty illegal include: Alaska (1957), Connecticut (2012), Delaware (2016), District of Columbia (1981), Hawaii (1957), Illinois (2011), Iowa (1965), Maine (1887), Maryland (2013), Massachusetts (1984), Michigan (1846), Minnesota (1911), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), New York (2007), North Dakota (1973), Rhode Island (1984), Vermont (1987), West Virginia (1965), Wisconsin (1853).

• The U.S. ranks 8th in executions, worldwide

Pew cites an Amnesty International study that shows that, in 2017, for the second year in a row, the U.S. did not make the top five list of countries in terms of executions. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt and Somalia top the 2017 list.

• Support for the death penalty in the U.S. is on a downward trend

The number of Americans who say they support the death penalty has declined dramatically since 1996 in spite of a recent uptick in support (54 percent of Americans said they support it in 2018, compared to 49 percent who said so in 2016).

In 1996 78 percent favored the death penalty, compared to 49 percent in 2016.

• Catholics are more conflicted about the death penalty than white evangelical Protestants

While 73 percent of white, evangelical Protestants said they favored the death penalty in a recent Pew survey, only 53 percent of Catholics said they support it.

Support for the death penalty is generally stronger among whites than blacks (59 percent to 36 percent), and Republicans are twice as likely to support it as Democrats (77 percent to 35 percent).

• A majority of Americans don’t think the death penalty is a deterrent

A 2015 Pew study found that about 60 percent of Americans don’t believe the death penalty deters people from committing serious crimes.

• A majority of Americans  believe that there is a risk that an innocent person could be executed

Seventy-one percent of all Americans say that there is a risk that an innocent person could be put to death. Among those who support the death penalty, 63 perceny say that an innocent person could be wrongfully executed. 

• Today there are 2,707 death row inmates in the United States.

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