The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) collects data on persons held under sentence of death and persons executed during the calendar year from the state department of corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, see Capital Punishment series. Reports produced from this collection summarize the movement of prisoners into and out of death sentence status. The data describe prisoners’ sex, race, Hispanic origin, education, marital status, age at time of arrest for the capital offense, and legal status at the time of the offense. Reports also include information on removals, including execution trends and time between imposition of death sentence and execution. BJS also collects preliminary counts of executions during the following year to provide web users with the most recent available data, see Prisoners executed.
Recent Data Collections
Data collections vary in scope, burden, and frequency of collection (see individual data collection descriptions for more information). Generally, BJS collects data both from administrative records and from interviews with prison and jail inmates. All data collections must be approved by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) prior to fielding, which takes several months. Collections must be resubmitted for approval every 3 years (sooner if there are changes in the data collection). For data that are collected through inmate interviews, there must also be an Institutional Review Board (IRB) to protect human subjects (prior to OMB submission), and individual jurisdictions may require additional reviews prior to participation.
All data collection is voluntary. Without a specific mandate by Congress, no jurisdiction is compelled to participate in our data collections; individual surveys are conducted only with persons granting formal consent to participate. Most jurisdictions choose to participate because the information is helpful for policy and practice and may be used to allocate funding. It takes time to achieve a complete enumeration, particularly in times of staff shortages and budget cuts in many levels of government.
Administrative collections are sent out close to the reference date in the survey and are due to BJS 2 to 3 months later. Most respondents submit the data on time, but for various reasons, other jurisdictions take longer to submit the data. BJS staff or contractor staff work with jurisdictions to obtain the necessary information, which can take an additional 3 months.
After data are collected, they must then be cleaned, weighted (in the case of sample populations), and analyzed. BJS staff has several methods of release, including a formal report, statistical/electronic tables, or a summary brief. All data are fully verified prior to release. Keeping in mind that each data collection is different and the times may vary significantly depending on the collection of interest, provided below is an average data collection and processing timetable:
Collection, 5–6 months (from reference date) for administrative surveys; 8–12 for interview surveys
Cleaning/weighting, 1–2 months for administrative surveys; 3–6 for interview surveys
Analysis/verification, 2–12 months, depending on survey type and complexity of analysis
Preparation to disseminate, 2–3 months
In 2021, 11 inmates were executed in the United States. The Bureau of Justice Statistics' (BJS) Capital Punishment reports present characteristics of persons under sentence of death and persons executed, and summarize the movement of prisoners into and out of death sentence status. See Prisoners executed under civil authority in the United States, by year, region, and jurisdiction for additional data on executions.
Caution must be used when using trend data, as definitions and reporting capabilities change over time. Some changes in definitions are due to BJS initiatives to improve counting (such as separating out state inmates held in private facilities or local jails), some may be driven by the Office of Management and Budget (such as changes in racial and ethnic definitions), and some may be noted by the reported jurisdiction (such as noncitizen inmate counts, including those who were foreign-born).
Whenever possible, BJS notes these differences and encourages users to check footnotes within tables and jurisdiction notes within reports to better understand why comparability can vary from state-to-state or year-to-year.
Note: When you see a sharp increase or decline in a year-to-year count, it is recommended to verify there was no change in definition or counting method.
Terms & Definitions
Capital punishment refers to the process of sentencing convicted offenders to death for the most serious crimes (capital crimes) and carrying out that sentence. The specific offenses and circumstances that determine if a crime is eligible for a death sentence are defined by statute and are prescribed by Congress or any state legislature.