Death Sentences Decline by More than Half in Decade of the 2010s

Death sentences imposed in the United States fell by more than half over the course of the 2010s, continuing a steep nationwide decline that has seen death sentences fall by more than 89% since the peak death sentencing years of the mid 1990s. Fewer death sentences were imposed in the second half of the 2010s than in any other five-year period since capital punishment resumed in the United States in 1973. [Click here to enlarge image]

A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of sentencing data found that three-, five-, and ten-year death sentencing rates all fell compared to their corresponding prior time periods. The United States imposed an average of 38.7 new death sentences between 2017–2019, which marked a 24.2% decline from the average of 51.0 per year imposed across the country in the preceding three-year period from 2014–2016. The five-year annual average of 39.2 new death sentences imposed between 2015-2019 was 55.1% below the average of 87.4 new death sentences imposed per year from 2010–2014, a decline of more than half. Similarly, the ten-year death-sentencing numbers reflected a decline by more than half, with the annual average of 63.3 new death sentences imposed per year over the course of the 2010s falling 56.6% below the average of 145.8 new death sentences per year in the first decade of the 21st century.

The actual number of death sentences imposed starkly demonstrated the magnitude of capital punishment’s decline. There were 825 fewer death sentences in the decade of the 2010s than in the decade of the 2000s, a drop that was 192 greater than the number of new death sentences actually imposed. The decline reached historical lows in the second half of the decade, when each year produced fewer than fifty new death sentences. The only other year in which death sentences were that low was in 1973, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down existing death-penalty statutes and before many states had enacted new capital punishment laws.

The second half of the 2010s produced 635 fewer new death sentences per year than the years 2000-2004, a decline of 76.4%, or 127 death sentences per year. The nation imposed 241 fewer new death sentences in 2015-2019 than in first half of the 2010s, a decline of 48.2 new death sentences per year.

Click here to enlarge image
Click here to enlarge image

The number of executions also steeply declined, falling 45.1% in the 2010s from the decade of the 2000s. 266 fewer executions were carried out in that period. The 118 executions carried out in 2014-2019 were down by 42.7% from the first half of the decade, with 88 fewer executions carried out in the last five years. Executions were down by nearly two-thirds (65.9%) from the first five years of this century, when 346 prisoners were put to death — an average of 69.2 executions per year. There were an average of 23.6 executions per year in the United States between 2015-2019.