Bureau of Justice Statistics, NAACP Legal Defense Fund Reports Document Ongoing Decline of U.S. Death-Row Population

Posted on Oct 05, 2020

The Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) have issued new reports documenting the continuing historic decline of the death penalty across the United States.

On September 29, 2020, BJS released Capital Punishment, 2018 – Statistical Tables, documenting that death row in the United States has decreased in size for 18 consecutive years from 2001 to 2018. Two days later, on October 1, 2020, LDF followed with the release of the Summer 2020 issue of Death Row USA, which reported that fewer people in the United States were on death row or facing the reimposition of the death penalty on retrial or resentencing than at any time since April 1992.

According to BJS, 2,628 prisoners were under sentence of death in a total of 30 states and the federal government at the close of 2018, a 3% decline from the year-end 2017 total. Just three states — California (28%), Florida (13%), and Texas (8%) — accounted for nearly half of all condemned prisoners in the country at year-end 2018.

Nineteen states across the United States held fewer prisoners under sentence of death at the end of 2018 than when the year began, while only two states and the federal Bureau of Prisons had an increase. The states that experienced the largest declines in the number of prisoners under sentence of death were Pennsylvania and Texas, each with 11 fewer prisoners each. Pennsylvania had 10 capital convictions or death sentences overturned in the courts and two prisoner deaths in custody, with no executions and one new death sentence. Texas had three convictions or death sentences overturned in the courts and one gubernatorial commutation against 13 executions and six death sentences or capital resentencings. Nationwide 64 prisoners were released from death row as a result of court decisions (61) or commutations (3), while 25 died by execution and 24 others died in custody on death row.

BJS also reported that the average time elapsed between a death sentence and execution in 2018 was 19 years, 12 months, down from 20 years, 3 months, but still the second longest since executions resumed in the U.S. in 1977.

Death Row USA reported that 2,591 people were on U.S. death rows or in jeopardy of reimposition of a death sentence as of July 1, 2020, the fewest since the organization’s Spring 1992 death-row census reported 2,588 on death row or in jeopardy of resentencing. That marked a decline of 29 since the start of the year and 65 (2.4%) from July 1, 2019.

The number of U.S. prisoners facing active death sentences also dipped slightly in the second quarter of 2020. A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of LDF’s death-row count found that 225 individuals whose convictions or death sentences had been reversed were awaiting retrial, resentencing, or completion of the appeals process. That left 2,366 prisoners facing active death sentences, the second consecutive quarter in which active death sentences declined by seven. Fifty-four fewer prisoners (a decrease of 2.2%) faced active death sentences than the 2,420 whose death sentences were active as of July 1, 2019.

LDF reported that 893 people were sentenced to death or faced possible capital resentencing in the three states — California, Pennsylvania, and Oregon — with moratoria on executions, representing 34.5% of the country’s death row. That left 1,517 prisoners in 25 states, 58.5% of death row, with death sentences LDF classified as active and enforceable.


NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Death Row USA, Summer 2020, October 1, 2020; Tracy Snell, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Capital Punishment 2018 — Statistical Tables, September 2020; NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Death Row USA, Winter 2020; NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Death Row USA, Summer 2019; NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Death Row USA, Spring 1992.