Before and since taking office, President Trump has frequently called for greater use of the death penalty, including for drug dealers, murderers and terrorists. But a new Bureau of Justice Statistics report suggests that the country does not share his enthusiasm for capital punishment.
In 2016, the number of prisoners under a death penalty sentence dropped for the 16th year in a row. In absolute terms, the number of prisoners facing capital punishment at the end of 2016 (2,814) was as low as it has been since 1993 (2,727). Adjusted for population growth, death row hasn’t been so sparsely populated since 1988.
Twenty prisoners were executed in 2016, the lowest total since 1991. As in prior years, the death penalty remained in existence because of a handful of states. In 2016, Texas and Georgia accounted for 80 percent of executions, whereas 45 states did not impose the death penalty.
The national turn away from the death penalty is not the only factor that will constrain Trump’s ability to bring back capital punishment. The federal government is a small presence in criminal justice, housing 1 in 8 prisoners. Because states — rather than the federal government — are the main drivers of law enforcement in the country, a president’s opinions on criminal justice make a lot less difference than many Americans realize.