Death Penalty

In 2020, the Feds Have Executed More Inmates Than All States Combined

An annual report on the death penalty shows its use declining everywhere except in the federal government.


The federal government in 2020 has executed more death row prisoners than all 50 states combined, making it a significant outlier in a country that is growing less and less interested in using the death penalty as a form of punishment.

Those are the major findings of a year-end report by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), which tracks statistics surrounding executions in America in both the states and the federal government.

In total, 17 death row prisoners were executed across the United States in 2020. Ten of those were federal prisoners. Five states (Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee) are responsible for the seven other executions.

The divergence of trends here is wide. The federal government had not executed any prisoners for nearly 20 years and there had only been three of these executions since 1963. Then, in the course of just six months, Attorney General William Barr led a parade of executions amidst a pandemic.

But in the states, the trends are going in the exact opposite direction. The DPIC report notes that this is the first time in the history of the United States where the federal government executed more civilians than the states. State executions have dropped to a 37-year low. Death sentences themselves are dropping significantly as states turn away from the punishment. States sentenced convicted prisoners to death only 18 times in 2020, the lowest number since 1972.

Part of that trend is likely attributable to the speed of justice plunging to a crawl due to the COVID-19 response. The DPIC notes that most of the new death penalty sentences were imposed in the first three months of 2020, before courts across the country started shutting down.

But even keeping the pandemic in mind, there is a clear 10-year trend in fewer death sentences and fewer executions across the states. In 2020, Colorado joined 21 other states in abolishing the death penalty, and Gov. Jared Polis commuted the sentences of the three people on death row to life without parole. Even in states that do have the death penalty still on the books, 12 of those states have not actually executed any inmates in 10 years.

It's very much worth noting that this decline in the use of the death penalty has not resulted in an increase in violent crime and homicides. A chart looking at violent crime rates across the country for the last 20 years shows a downward curve that looks a lot like the decline in death penalties and executions. A DPIC fact sheet notes that 88 percent of criminology experts "reject the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder."

2020 also saw five death row exonerations. Paul Browning, Walter Ogrod, Kareem Johnson, Curtis Flowers, and Robert DuBoise were all freed from death row this year, all previously convicted in cases marked with prosecutorial conduct. But three prisoners—Donnie Lance, Nathaniel Woods, and Walter Barton—were not so fortunate. Even though evidence existed that likely showed that the men were innocent and had been wrongfully convicted, the three were nevertheless executed.

We keep discovering that people on death row are actually innocent. We can see the data clearly showing a downward trend in both violent crime and executions, evidence that the death penalty's correlation as a deterrent is simply not there. The death penalty results in the state killing people who may well be innocent while not actually preventing future murders. It's another terrible government bureaucratic authority that persists even though it doesn't accomplish what proponents insist that it does.

NEXT: Senate Hearing on Election 'Irregularities' Highlights Trump's Reckless Disregard for the Truth

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  2. We can see the data clearly showing a downward trend in both violent crime and executions, evidence that the death penalty’s correlation as a deterrent is simply not there.

    Correlation is not causation, ergo not correlation proves not causation. Science!

    1. Two weeks ago, for 7 straight days, raccoons dug through our garbage. On the 7th night, I sat outside and executed every last raccoon. Since that time, no digging through the trash.

      “Obviously, executing the raccoons had no effect on the mostly peaceful redistribution of trash.” – Scott Shackford


    2. Nobody tell them that those actually being killed committed the crimes decade ago or more.

      1. I blame Trump for locking illegal immigrant children in cages during the Obama Administration and seeking quid pro quo from the Ukraine before the State Department released funds to the Ukraine, but not telling anyone in the State Department or Ukraine until afterwards.

      2. Remember how Trump sentenced these men to death back during Bush and Obama’s tenures.

        1. Remember how the Constitution gives the authority to pardon/commute/etc to the Prez.

          I’m sure things will change in Trump’s second term. So far, Trump has granted more pardons/commutes/etc than – William Henry Harrison (30 days), James Garfield (6 months), George Washington, John Adams. That’s it. Of the rest, only Zachary Taylor (15 months) is close.

    3. Causation does require correlation. Correlation is a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement.

      ie, if there is causation (A => B, B, therefore A) must be a valid argument.

      Ergo, not correlation necessarily does rule out causation.

      1. Causation does require correlation. Correlation is a necessary,

        The only outstanding question is, on your logic exams, did you cheat off of Scott or did Scott cheat off of you?

        Your assessment is only true if reality and/or human behavior is comprised of a narrow set of deterministic/state functions. It’s not.

    4. Correlation is not always causation, but it can be an indication.

      1. Except he’s not asserting causation, he’s asserting not causation.

  3. There are fewer death sentences because there are fewer capital crimes.

    Now why fewer capital crimes until this year is no mystery. But Koch reason wants it both ways with less policing and no deterrent.

    It’s no longer unreasonable to say libertarians want the us to resemble Somali.

    1. Very good point. Only an anarchist would oppose the death penalty because innocent people are killed. No death penalty means no laws at all!

      1. Execute the jaywalkers!

        Also, with the exceedingly long time it takes to get a capital crime through the system to the execution chamber, the idea that all these capital crimes are from “this year” is ridiculous in the extreme.

      2. Well you went full on hyperbolic strawman quickly.

        1. That was in response to Somalia!11!!1!! you maroon.

    2. It’s no longer unreasonable to say libertarians want the us to resemble Somali.

      No, it’s still retarded.

  4. Why would the death penalty deter people who don’t plan on getting caught?

    1. It’s almost like the average criminal/sociopath has very little future orientation or sense of consequence.

      1. It’s almost like things that lack future orientation, sense of consequence, or awareness of benefit/harm to self or others are inconsequential as lifeforms. Like, say, a lump of cells.

        1. Did you mean this as a response to me?

          1. Response, yes. Refutation, no.

            The narrow psy-ops definition of ‘deterrance’ is getting into the weeds/playing their game.

    2. I think the deterrence argument can only be used if executions are public.
      Execute someone quietly hidden away in a special closed room? Not a deterrent.
      Execute them in a packed football stadium during the halftime show? Possibly a deterrent.

      1. Winning number of the 50/50 raffle also gets to pull the lever, flip the switch, whatever.

        1. Wire the stadium so a push button on each seat contributes like 10V. 3,000 people show up wanting them dead, 30kV. 2 people show up, they get a very uncomfortable nap. Democracy in action!

      2. If I was king I’d do exactly that. And I’d also empty the jails and use stocks and caning/whipping for most offences. That would be a heck of a lot less cruel and unusual than taking away years of someone’s life along with their ability to ever get a good job. Save prisons for truly dangerous people who cannot function in society.

  5. What are the odds that a prisoner on death row will be executed? Despite a temporary burst, capital punishment hasn’t been a serious threat in decades.

    1. What’s the ratio of executed at the hands of an officer to, uh, actual?… condoned?… other capital punishment?

      1. cops just doing the job the state was going to put off for years. its a money saver


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  7. My first reaction: Execute more.

    There are criminals whose lives should be ended for their crimes. The 8th amendment says that is fine. So execute.

    1. The 8th amendment might be cool with it, but I can’t seem to trust cops, prosecutors and judges enough to be.

      I’m also seriously concerned that in the not to distant future the left will embrace it for political crimes.

      1. I’m sure the right has got their own list of political crimes as well.

        1. Well which ones. We know the left is perfectly fine with streamlining anyone accused of rape without any evidence straight to jail. And with the way people from the left have been talking since the election, re-educating the “deplorables” seems to be their next big goal. Their already trying to take legal actions against Sydney Powell, they already tried to impeach Trump and will probably try to put him in jail after he leaves the presidency. Haven’t heard the right mention those kinds of things.

          1. I figure the right’s first purge would result in journalism become a very unattractive occupation.

            1. *becoming*

            2. The right already started punish journalists and the like when they stopped tuning in to the respective organizations and revenue started to plummet. That’s their fault for lying mischaracterizing and labeling the right. I see right calling for boycots, not prison and jail or execution for private individuals and companies. If the standard republican isn’t ok without killing people who support abortion, other than guns which theyre pathetic on anyways, nothing is gonna get them that ramped up.

              1. That’s their fault for lying mischaracterizing and labeling the right.

                From the left’s point of view Fox news and talk radio do the same thing to them.

                1. And this bolsters your inane observation how?

            3. It already is. There are almost no journalists in the US anymore. CNN. MSNBC, CNBC, NYT, CBS, NBC, etc don’t employee them anymore. They only employ progressive propagandists.

      2. What about jury’s?

        1. The jury did their job. They evaluated the evidence and found the son of a bitch guilty of a crime worthy of death. And then quite likely deliberated a penalty phase as well.

          Execute them, and be done with this.

  8. What?! The Feds have executed a whole 10 people?! And the problem is? My question is is this a critique of the death penalty per se or under our current circumstances? In Libertopia where there’s little crime we could make sure they are guilty. Personally I could take it or leave it.

  9. The death penalty is really useful for literally ensuring that murderers can’t kill again. Not that this argument would work with Reason staff, who only notice the death row inmates who are now best buds with the victim’s families.

    1. And the innocent people who were executed.

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  11. In Los Angeles murder will soon become a misdemeanor at the rate they are going. Prosecutor wants special circumstances dropped for a man that murdered two people, including a police officer.

    I’ll bet he wouldn’t drop “hate crime” from the special circumstance if the perpetrator was white.

    1. He would seek the death penalty for jaywalking, if the perp were wearing a MAGA hat.

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  13. “declining everywhere except in the federal government.”

    PREDICTION: Next year when states resume the normal execution schedule (and even increase it due to this year’s backlog), Reason will be sounding the alarm over “states massively ramp up the evil death chamber compared to last year, gasp, horror! Is this a sign that the death penalty is suddenly popular?!?).

    I’m waiting for it…

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