Bureau of Justice Statistics Releases 2017 Data on U.S. Capital Punishment

The decline in the U.S. death-row population continued for a 17th consecutive year in 2017, according to newly released findings by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics. The data in the Bureau’s annual death-penalty report, Capital Punishment, 2017: Selected Findi­­ngs, confirm the long-term findings of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund showing that death row has fallen in size every year since 2001.

BJS reviewed data relating to every person under sentence of death who was incarcerated in a state or federal non-military correctional facility at any time during 2017. The Bureau found that 2,703 prisoners were on death row at the end of 2017, down 94 (3%) from the end of 2016. BJS reported that death row declined in size in 18 states, remained the same size in 11, and increased in 3 states and the federal government. Collectively, Florida (down 33), Delaware (12), and Texas (10) accounted for 59% of the national decline. The declines in Florida and Delaware coincided with court decisions in those states declaring their capital sentencing practices unconstitutional. Texas had 3 more executions than new death sentences; 5 other former Texas death-row prisoners were resentenced to life or less and two others died on death row.

Nationwide, 4.6 times as many prisoners were removed from death row by means other than execution than were put to death in 2017. BJS reported 24 deaths on death row versus 23 by execution. Eighty-one others left death row as a result of overturning their convictions or death sentences, being non-capitally resentenced, or having their death sentences commuted.

The report also showed that death penalty usage is concentrated in particular regions of the country. Twenty of the 23 executions (87%) took place in the South, double the number of death sentences imposed in that region. 3.75 times more people were removed from death row in the region for reasons other than execution than were executed. Half of all new death row admissions were concentrated in three states in the Pacific Southwest who collectively executed no one. Correctional facilities in California, Arizona, and Nevada received a combined total of 17 death-row prisoners, while no other western states added any new death-row prisoners.

BJS also reported that the average time between the imposition of the latest death sentence and the date on which a death sentence was carried out increased to 243 months (20.25 years) in 2017, up from 204 months (17 years) in 2016 and 153 months (12.75 years) in 2007. BJS did not explore the causes of the increase, but a DPIC analysis of execution data from 2012 through 2017 saw a decline in the proportion of cases that moved from an initial death sentence to execution in fewer than 15 years. The median time between initial sentencing and execution increased from between 14-16 years every year from 2012-2015 to 19 years in 2017. BJS calculated the time between sentencing and execution based on the most recent sentencing date, excluding the time on death row attributable to prior unconstitutional convictions or death sentences. It found that, “[o]f the 23 prisoners executed in 2017, a total of 16 (more than two-thirds) had been sentenced in 1999 or earlier.”


Jess Bravin. Death Penalty Continues to Wane in U.S., Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2019; Tracy L. Snell, Capital Punishment, 2017: Selected Findings, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2019.