Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Nov. 27, 2022. It has been updated.
The death penalty remains a controversial subject with sharp divisions on either side of the debate. This divide is reflected by the fact that many states in the U.S. have banned capital punishment, some as recently as 2021, while other states still have the death penalty in effect.
What is the death penalty?
The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, is reserved in the United States for especially heinous crimes. Different states have different regulations around the death penalty, but broadly speaking, it refers to the state executing someone who is convicted of a capital offense — typically murder.
To better understand the complexities of the death penalty, here are terms to know related to the death penalty, as well as which states have the death penalty, common arguments for the death penalty and arguments against it.
Terms to know related to the death penalty
The death penalty has a specific vocabulary associated with it. Here are some of the common terms related to the death penalty and what they mean.
Capital punishment: Capital punishment has the same meaning as death penalty. According to Cornell University, it refers to when a person is sentenced to death for a crime that they have committed. In the U.S., capital punishment is not available as a sentence for the vast majority of crimes.
Death row: Death row refers to when a person has been sentenced to death, but is incarcerated before they are executed. According to Death Penalty Info, individuals can remain on death row for several years — the average is a little over a decade. The appeal process can lengthen the time a person spends on death row.
Execution: Execution refers to when the state carries out the death penalty and kills a person convicted of a crime. According to CNN, a person can be killed by lethal injection, hanging, firing squad or electrocution. In the U.S., the most common form of execution is by lethal injection.
Capital offense: According to Cornell University, a capital offense is a crime that can potentially be punished by the death penalty. While murder is the most well-known capital offense, some states have individual regulations that include other crimes like capital drug-trafficking or terrorism.
Which states have the death penalty?
According to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, 27 states have the death penalty and 23 do not.
States with the death penalty: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
California, Oregon and Pennsylvania currently have a moratorium or temporary prohibition on executions.
States without the death penalty: Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
How many states in the U.S. have the death penalty?
27 states have the death penalty.
What was the most recent state to ban the death penalty?
Virginia banned the death penalty in 2021.
Is there a death penalty in California?
Yes, but there’s a moratorium (temporary prohibition) that has been in place since 2019.
Arguments for the death penalty
Britannica glosses the arguments for the death penalty.
- Some consider the death penalty a deterrent against further violent crime.
- Some see the death penalty as more humane than forcing a person to spend their life in prison without parole.
- Some argue that “an eye for an eye” is a moral form of justice.
- Some believe that the death penalty offers closure to families.
Arguments against the death penalty
Britannica also glosses the arguments against the death penalty.
- Some see the death penalty as not substantially deterring violent crime.
- Some consider the death penalty a less humane punishment than prison.
- Some argue that “killing is killing” and that the death penalty shouldn’t be treated as an acceptable form of killing.
- Some believe that the death penalty has the potential of harming innocent people — therefore, we shouldn’t do it.