The number of people on death row or facing possible capital resentencing in the United States has fallen to its lowest level in nearly three decades, according to a DPIC analysis of the latest death-row data compiled by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).

LDF’s Winter 2021 edition of its quarterly Death Row USA (DRUSA) census, released on August 31, 2021, reports that 2,528 people were imprisoned on state, federal, or military death rows in the United States as of January 1, 2021 or still faced jeopardy of death in pending capital retrial or resentencing proceedings. DPIC’s review of historical data found that the last time death row in the United States was smaller was in August 1991, when LDF reported that 2,504 people were sentenced to death or facing reimposition of the death penalty in pending capital proceedings.

LDF listed 92 fewer people in its Winter 2021 DRUSA report than appeared in the organization’s January 1, 2020 death-row census, a one-year decline of 3.5%. The biggest declines were in California and Pennsylvania, whose death-row populations fell by 17 and 12 prisoners, respectively, without carrying out any executions. Nineteen California death-row prisoners died in 2020, 13 from COVID-19. In Pennsylvania, three death-row prisoners were exonerated and nine others were resentenced to life or less.

In the fourth quarter of 2020, the number of people on death row or facing potential capital resentencing declined by 25, from LDF’s October 1 total of 2,553. Pennsylvania led the decline with seven in the three-month period.

The U.S. death-row population has steadily fallen since its peak in July 2001, when a reported 3,717 people were on death row or facing possible capital resentencing. The January 2021 numbers are 32.0% below that peak.

The number of active death sentences — that is, individuals on death row whose death sentences have not been reversed — also continued to decline. The LDF report identified 232 people whose sentences have been reversed and are awaiting retrial or resentencing, or whose grants of relief are still subject to appeal. Removing those individuals leaves 2,296 people facing active death sentences, an 84-person reduction (3.5%) from the 2,380 active death sentences reported on January 1, 2020 and a 30-person reduction (1.2%) from October 1, 2020.

34.3% (867 people) of those on death row or facing capital resentencing as of January 1, 2021 were in states with moratoria on executions. Subtracting those on death row in the moratorium states and those whose death sentences have been reversed, LDF calculated that there were 1,478 currently enforceable sentences. 1,050 death sentences are currently unenforceable, either because the death sentence has been overturned or the prisoner is in a state with a moratorium on executions. The total represents 41.5% of all active cases in which a death sentence has been imposed.

California’s death row was once again the largest in the nation, with 708 prisoners, followed by Florida (345), Texas (207), and Alabama (170). North Carolina (141) and Ohio (138) moved into the fifth and sixth positions, surpassing Pennsylvania, whose death-row population fell to 135.

Nationwide, 42.3% of death-row prisoners were white, 41.5% were Black, 13.5% Latinx, 1.8% Asian, and 0.9% were Native American. Among states with at least 10 prisoners on death row, Nebraska (75%), Texas (72%), Louisiana (72%), California (67%) and Pennsylvania (63%) were the states with the highest percentage of individuals of color on death row. Two percent of all death-row prisoners are women.

LDF also released its Spring 2021 Death Row USA report on August 31. DPIC will have an analysis of that report next week.


NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., Death Row USA, Winter 2021, August 312021.