2021 Saw Fewest U.S. Executions Since 1988 | Best States


The death penalty is in decline in the U.S., according to a year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit organization that advocates against capital punishment.

There were just 11 executions in the U.S. in 2021 – the fewest since 1988. Virginia abolished the death penalty in March, making it the first state in the South to do so and the 23rd state overall. For the seventh consecutive year, there were fewer than 30 people executed, which the report argues reflects growing national sentiment against capital punishment.

According to the report, there were historically low numbers of both executions and new death sentences in 2021. Eighteen people were sentenced to death this year – tying 2021 with 2020 for the fewest since 1972.

The executions carried out at the federal level this year were part of what the Death Penalty Information Center characterized as an “execution spree” during the final days of the Trump presidency. Between Election Day and Inauguration Day, the Justice Department carried out six executions, the most of any presidential transition period in history. There have been no executions at the federal level since President Joe Biden took office on January 20.

While COVID-19 “unquestionably affected” the declining use of the death penalty, 2021 is also representative of a long-term trend away from executions in the United States, according to the report. This was the seventh year with fewer than 50 death sentences and 30 executions. Twenty-three states have now totally abolished the death penalty, three have a formal moratorium on its use and 10 states still technically allow capital punishment but haven’t executed anyone in at least a decade.

The decline in executions is consistent with public opinion on capital punishment. Support for the death penalty peaked in 1994, when 80% of Americans told Gallup that they agreed with executing those convicted of murder. In 2021, that percentage fell to 54%. The last time support for the death penalty was lower than the current numbers was in 1972, when 50% of Americans supported executions.

The decline in support from the 1990s to the present is consistent with changing national attitudes toward crime and the justice system. In 1994, Americans cited crime as the most important issue facing the country. In the most recent Gallup poll asking the same question, Americans cited several other issues before crime, including poor leadership and COVID-19.