Death Penalty in the U.S.

“Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it…. We are taking an important step forward in our history as Illinois joins the 15 other states and many nations of the world that have abolished the death penalty.”

– Illinois Governor Pat Quinn

Over the last decades there has been a steady trend away from the death penalty. Juries are handing out fewer death sentences and opting instead for life without parole, executions per year are dropping, more states are repealing the death penalty, and the United States Supreme Court has narrowed instances where the death penalty is constitutional.

Death Penalty Support Declining

  • Though the majority of Americans admit support for the death penalty, support drops dramatically when they are made aware of alternative sentences. When given the choice of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole in place of the death penalty, Americans split evenly in which sentence they prefer.1
  • Support for the death penalty peaked in the mid 1990s, but has since dropped by 20 percent.2
  • A 2009 poll of the nation’s leading criminologists showed that 88% of them believe the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder.3
  • A 2009 poll found that the majority of police chiefs do not that think the death penalty deters crime, and in fact they rank the death penalty last in a list of effective ways to prevent violent crime.4

States are Stepping Away from the Death Penalty

  • In the past decade, five states have abandoned the death penalty: New York(2004), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), and Connecticut (2012).
  • Since death sentences peaked in 1996, at 315, nationwide the number of death sentences has been declining. The number of death sentences in 2010, 114, was near the historic lows.5
  • After a high of 98 executions in 1999, executions in the United States declined in the following decade. In 2010, there were just 46 executions nationwide.6

Supreme Court is Limiting the Death Penalty

  • Over the past several years, the United States Supreme Court has taken steps toward limiting the instances in which the death penalty can be used.
  • In Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), the court held that the death penalty cannot be sought for crimes in which no murder occurs.7
  • In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the court held that it is unconstitutional to execute someone for a crime they committed before the age of eighteen.8
  • In Atkins v Virginia (2002), the court held that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded.9


  1. Gallup Polling.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock, “Do Executions Lower Murder Rates?: The Views of Leading Criminologists,” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 99 (2009): 489-508.
  4. Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), “Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis,” October 20, 2009.
  5. DPIC, “Death Penalty Sentencing Information.”
  6. DPIC, “Executions by year since 1976,” March 10, 2011.
  7. Kennedy v. Louisiana, 07-343 U.S. (2008).
  8. Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).
  9. Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).