The number of inmates on Texas’ death row is falling.
At its peak in 1999, 460 men and women were living with a death sentence in Texas, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Today, there are 260.
The reason for the decline isn't a rise in executions. In 2000, an all-time high of 40 inmates were executed in Texas, compared with 10 last year. So far this year, nine inmates have been executed.
The main reason is a drop in new death sentences. In 1999, 48 people were sentenced to Texas death row, according to BJS data. In 2008, that number was nine — and has stayed in that range ever since. This year, there have been no new death sentences so far, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit organization of death penalty attorneys, said that zero is significant.
“This is the longest we’ve gone in a calendar year in Texas without a new death sentence,” Kase said. “Before this year, the longest that we’ve gone is through the first quarter."
Experts suggest several factors could be contributing to the falling number of death sentences, from a national decline in support for the death penalty to shortages of the lethal drugs used in executions. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile offenders could not face execution, lessening future sentences as well as sparing 29 offenders who were already sitting on death row.
But consistently, they point to a 2005 law that offered Texas prosecutors the option to pursue life-without-parole sentences against capital murder defendants. Previously, capital murder offenders who did not receive the death penalty were eligible for parole after 40 years.
“Life without parole allows us to go back and reverse our mistakes,” Kase said. “We can be really safe in these cases.”
Since that law was enacted, the number of life-without-parole sentences has increased nearly every year, according to TDCJ. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of life-without-parole sentences jumped from 37 to 96.
Currently, 745 people are serving a life-without-parole sentence in Texas, nearly three times the number of death row inmates.
So far this year, Kase said three death penalty cases have gone to trial. All have ended with life-without-parole sentences.