The death penalty is, slowly but surely, on the decline in America.
A new report from the Death Penalty Information Center found that 2018 was the fourth year in a row in which executions were below 30 and death sentences were below 50. It’s not a new record low for a year — 2016 in particular was even lower — but it’s close.
“Death sentences have declined by half in the last four years compared to the previous four years,” the report noted. “Those years also produced the fewest new death sentences of any four-year period in the modern history of U.S. capital punishment.”
For the first time in more than a quarter century, the report went on, “the number of prisoners facing active death sentences in the United States fell below 2,500 in 2018.” It also noted, “For the first time in the modern history of the U.S. death penalty, no county in the United States imposed more than two new death sentences.”
Why is this the case? The report explained that “the combination of court decisions reversing convictions or death sentences, deaths from non-execution causes, and exonerations now consistently outpaces the number of new death sentences imposed.”
The decline has been fueled by shifts in public opinion, which has become less and less supportive of the death penalty over time. According to Gallup’s surveys, 56 percent of Americans supported the death penalty for murder in 2018, down from a peak of 80 percent in 1994.
That’s led more states and law enforcement officials to pull back or abolish the use of the death penalty. In October, Washington state became the 20th state to end capital punishment when its highest court struck down the state’s death penalty, characterizing the way that the state carried out the policy as “racially biased” and “arbitrary.” The state had already imposed a moratorium on new executions, but the court decision sealed the policy’s fate.
The research and experts have long been skeptical that the death penalty actually deters or prevents more crime. As the Death Penalty Information Center noted, a 2009 survey of the US’s top criminologists found that 88 percent “do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide” and 87 percent “believe that abolition of the death penalty would not have any significant effect on murder rates.”
Policymakers and the public seem to increasingly share in the skepticism — and the death penalty is slowly going away as a result.
For more on the death penalty’s decline, read Vox’s explainer.