Speed Reads

Capital Punishment

Death sentences fall to 40-year low as U.S. attitudes change on capital punishment

In 2016, 30 people were sentenced to death in the United States, the lowest number since the early 1970s and a sharp decline from the 49 people handed the death penalty in 2015 and the 315 sentenced to death in 1996, the peak year, according to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). The 20 executions carried out also marked a 25-year low — 14 people were put to death in 1991 — and a drop from last year's 28 executions and the 1999 apex, 98.

"I think we are watching a major political climate change concerning capital punishment and it's reflected among reduced death sentences across the country," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the DPIC, which opposes capital punishment. The decline in executions is also attributable to a shortage of drugs used in lethal-injection cocktails and more aggressive legal challenges by defendants. Still, only 49 percent of Americans now support the death penalty, according to a recent Pew poll, the lowest number since the mid-1960s and a big drop from the 80 percent who favored capital punishment in 1994.

At the same time, voters in California and Nebraska rejected measures to ban capital punishment in the November election, leaving it legal in 31 states. California — which hasn't carried out an execution since 2006 due to legal challenges — still sentenced the most people to death this year, nine, followed by Ohio (five), Texas (four), Alabama (three), and Florida (two). Georgia executed the most people, nine, followed by Texas (seven), Alabama (two), and Missouri and Florida (one).