By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - U.S. executions and new death sentences rose slightly in 2017 from a year ago but remained the lowest in decades as capital punishment has declined in the country, a survey released on Thursday showed.
The United States had 23 executions so far in 2017, with no more scheduled for the year. This is up slightly from 20 last year, the lowest since 1991, but far fewer than the record of 98 in 1999, according to the study from the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit capital punishment monitor.
For the past several years more states have offered life in prison without parole as an alternative sentence.
Legal battles over death penalty protocols and pharmaceutical companies banning sales of drugs for lethal injections due to ethical concerns have also caused executions to drop.
"The long-term trend seems consistent. It looks as though we are going to remain with a comparatively low number of executions and a comparatively low number of new death sentences," Robert Dunham, the center's executive director, said in a telephone interview.
Four inmates were exonerated from death row in 2017, bringing the total since 1973 to 160, the report said.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, there have been 1,465 executions, with 545 in Texas, the most of any state.
While 31 states have the death penalty, Texas and Arkansas accounted for about half of all U.S. executions this year.
But in a sign of the changing times, Harris County in Texas, once known as the "buckle on the execution belt" for sending more people to the death chamber than any other nationwide, accounted for zero executions or death sentences in 2017, the study said, the first time this has happened since 1974.
Harris County, home to Houston, received a new district attorney, when Kim Ogg, a Democrat, took office in January. Ogg favors the death penalty but said she wanted to use it sparingly for the worst of the worst crimes where there is no question of guilt.
"Our policies reflect the wishes of the community at large. We have not abandoned the death penalty. But we are selective. We have to be," Tom Berg, first assistant district attorney for Harris County, said in a telephone interview.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Richard Chang)