Why are counties the key to ending the death penalty?
“Between 2004 and 2009, for example, just 29 counties (fewer than 1% of counties in the country) accounted for approximately half of all death sentences imposed nationwide. And in 2012, just 59 counties (fewer than 2% of counties in the country) accounted for all death sentences imposed nationwide.”
– U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Glossip v. Gross dissent
Seeking the death penalty is at the discretion of the prosecutor. There are more than 200 elected County and District Attorneys in the State of Texas.
- Of the 254 counties in Texas, more than half have never imposed a death sentence.
- Just three counties account for more than half of the 199 people currently on death row: Harris (74 individuals); Dallas (18); and Tarrant (14). No other county has more than seven individuals on death row at this time.
- The rate of death sentencing has declined significantly over the last decade, reflecting the changing attitudes of jurors and prosecutors. This is true even in the two that historically account for the most death sentences and executions.
- A majority of voters in both Dallas and Harris counties prefer alternatives to the death penalty, according to polls.
According to the 2020 Houston Area Survey, conducted by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, when asked to choose their preferred punishment for persons convicted of first-degree murder, only 20% of Houstonians preferred the death penalty for such crimes.
When asked which punishment they prefer for people convicted of first-degree murder, 75% of voters in Dallas opted for a sentence of life in prison with a possibility of parole after 20 or 40 years or life in prison without parole, according to a poll conducted in June 2021 by the independent research firm Public Policy Polling. Only 14% of all respondents prefer the death penalty.
- The current death row population of Texas comes from less than 50 counties.
Since 2016, juries in 16 counties have imposed a death sentence. Of these, only three counties (Harris, Tarrant, and Walker counties) account for more than one death sentence.
See TCADP’s report, Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2020: The Year in Review, for details.
- For examples of what the cost of the death penalty looks like on the county level, download TCADP’s fact sheet on cost.
Fact sheets from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition
“Capital Punishment: The State of the Death Penalty in Tarrant County and Texas,” blog post by Varghese Summersett PLLC, Fort Worth, Texas
“Experts discuss cost of the death penalty amid era of growing decline,” Community Impact Newspaper (Richardson edition), March 18, 2020
“Some TX prosecutors have stopped asking for death sentences. Tarrant County’s have not.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 17, 2019
“Death penalty, executions grow rarer statewide, though McLennan County cases are pending,” Waco Tribune-Herald, December 17, 2019
The 2% Death Penalty from the Death Penalty Information Center
Too Broken to Fix: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties Part I and Part II from The Fair Punishment Project
What can you do?
There are many opportunities for civic and political engagement at the local level:
- Pay attention to important local elections that impact the use of the death penalty in your county, including candidates for district attorney, county judge and county commissioners, and state district judges.
- Participate in town hall meetings, candidate debates, open houses, and other forums to engage with candidates and elected officials; ask the candidates about their approach to criminal justice issues.
- Attend meetings of local political/civic groups.
- Attend precinct and district conventions (in the spring) and state political conventions (in the summer); contact us about providing information on the death penalty at these events.
- In an individual capacity, work on a local campaign. This is a great way to build relationships with elected officials and other political activists in your community.
- Note TCADP is a 501(c)(3) organization, which means that we do not get involved in political campaigns or endorse candidates. We also are strictly non-partisan.
- Schedule a meeting with your state senator and state representative in their district offices; contact TCADP if you would like to learn more about your lawmakers and their position on death penalty issues. We also can connect you with other TCADP members in your district if you would like to organize a small delegation to join you for a meeting.