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Prison, Death Row Populations Continue Multiyear Decline

The total number of people in the U.S. correctional system and the number of inmates under sentence of death in U.S. prisons both declined in 2016, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) statistical briefs published in late April.

Slightly more than 6.6 million inmates were in the U.S. correctional system (this includes persons in jails or prisons and those on probation or parole) at the end of 2016, a 0.9 percent decrease from 2015.

The correctional system population reached a high point of slightly more than 7.3 million persons in 2007 before beginning a nine-year decline.

“From 2007 to 2016, the correctional population declined by an average of 1.2 percent annually, ranging from a decrease of 0.4 percent in 2008 to 2.1 percent in 2010,” BJS reported.

The majority of persons (nearly 3.7 million, or 55 percent) were on probation, with more than 1.5 million (22.8 percent) in prisons, 874,800 (13.2 percent) on parole, and 740,700 (11.2 percent) in jails. An additional 180,500 persons had more than one correctional status.

Texas had the largest correctional system population in 2016 (681,900), followed by California (536,100), Pennsylvania (368,100), Florida (366,000) and Ohio (326,200).

In 2016, there were 2,814 inmates on “death row,” a 58-person (2 percent) decline from 2015 that marks the 16th year in a row that this number has declined.

The vast majority (2,756) were held in state prisons, while 58 were housed in federal prisons.

In 1953, there were 131 persons under sentence of death. This number rose steadily over the next three decades, crossing the 1,000-prisoner mark in 1982 (1,066) and rising to a height of 3,601 by 2000 before beginning a 16-year downward trajectory.

Whites accounted for 1,560 (down from 1,606 in 2015) of those under sentence of death in 2016 and blacks for 1,189 (down from 1,202). The race of the remaining 65 death row inmates was not indicated in the brief.

The highest number of inmates were held in California prisons (742; a three-person increase from 2015).

Florida (382; down from 389) and Texas (244; down from 251) prisons held the next highest number of death row inmates, followed by Alabama (183; down from 187), Pennsylvania (174; down from 181), North Carolina (150; up from 147), Ohio (140; up from 138), and Arizona (118; down from 119).

All other states with the death penalty had fewer than 100 inmates on death row.

“California (26 percent), Florida (14 percent) and Texas (9 percent) held nearly half (49 percent) of the nation’s prisoners under sentence of death at year-end 2016,” the BJS brief stated.

Ninety inmates were removed from death row in 2016 – 20 by execution, 19 by death due to natural causes and 51 by having their convictions overturned.

Of the 20 inmates executed, 18 were white and two were black. Georgia executed nine people in 2016, followed by Texas (7), Alabama (2), Florida (1) and Missouri (1).

While the full BJS statistical brief for 2017 won’t be published until next spring, the 2016 brief provided “advance count” data for last year, reporting that 23 prisoners were executed in eight states last year: Texas (7), Arkansas (4), Alabama (3), Florida (3), Ohio (2), Virginia (2), Missouri (1) and Georgia (1).

Thirty-four U.S. states currently authorize the death penalty, all of which list lethal injection as an authorized means.

“In addition to lethal injection, 15 states authorized an alternative method of execution: electrocution (8 states), lethal gas (3), hanging (3), ring squad (2) and nitrogen hypoxia (1),” BJS reported.

The 16 states without capital punishment are Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin. The death penalty is not authorized in the District of Columbia.

“New Mexico repealed the death penalty for offenses committed on or after July 1, 2009,” BJS noted. “As of December 31, 2016, two males in New Mexico were under previously imposed death sentences.”

The full BJS statistical brief on the correctional population is available here, and the brief on “death row” inmates available here.