U.S. death penalty and race

Of the prisoners sentenced to death and executed in the U.S., we should expect that the percentage of those that are White and the percentage of those who are Black would be similar, if not the same, to those group’s representation in the overall U.S. population.

This is not the case.

In the U.S., 13.4% of the population is Black. In 2017, the most recent year that the Bureau of Justice offers statistics, 23 citizens were executed in the U.S. Nearly 35% (8) of them were Black. Just 23 executions is a small data set, so we want to be careful taking away too much from that one year. But if we look at the larger data set of prisoners sentenced to death, the numbers are actually even worse. Of the 2,637 prisoners awaiting a death sentence in 2017, nearly 43% of them were Black.

The data on a state-by-state basis often looks even more unequal. For example, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, and Colorado the total number of Black inmates on death row was higher than that of White inmates.

The Black population is indeed proportionately higher in some of these states — for instance, in Georgia, roughly 33% of the population is Black. Yet, in that state, 55% of death row inmates are Black.

Proportionately higher Black populations isn’t the case in all of these states though. Pennsylvania has a Black population that is proportionately lower than the country as a whole (12% vs 13.4%), yet 52% of death row inmates are Black.

U.S. executions and death row inmates by race, 2017

# of executions % of executions # of prisoners under sentence of death % of prisoners under sentence of death
White 15 65.2% 1,508 57.2%
Black 8 34.8% 1,129 42.8%
Total 23 100.0% 2,637 100.0%
Source: Bureau of Justice, Capital Punishment, 2017: Selected Findings.

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