On March 24, Virginia became the 23rd state and the first southern state to abolish the death penalty, marking the first time a majority of US states either have abolished the death penalty or have formally committed to not carrying out a death sentence.

The first recorded execution in the US (then European colonies) happened in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608, and since 1976, Virginia has executed the second-highest number of people after Texas and executed the highest percentage of people on its death row of any state.

Though advocates had lobbied Virginia to abolish the death penalty for decades, Governor Ralph Northam’s support for abolition, calls for racial justice and justice reform in Virginia and across the country in response to George Floyd’s murder, and changes in practice and public opinion made abolishing it a priority in Virginia’s 2021 legislative session. On February 22, the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates voted to abolish the death penalty and resentence the two men on Virginia’s death row to life without parole.

As we recognize this important step for Virginia, the South, and the US, we must acknowledge the racist and classist nature of the death penalty, address significant inequities in other criminal penalties, and pursue alternatives to the death penalty that do not cause similar harms and do not condemn people to die in prisons.

In the last century, more than 78 percent of people executed in Virginia were Black, despite Black people representing less than 20 percent of the population. Before Virginia abolished the death penalty for cases that did not involve a murder, all nonhomicide crimes that resulted in execution were of Black people—no white people were executed for the same crimes.

Read the full article about injustices in the criminal legal system by Colette Marcellin, Andreea Matei, and Libby Doyle at Urban Institute.