Obstacles for Trump in push to expand the death penalty


President Trump’s push to use the death penalty for some drug dealers faces high hurdles.

The soon-to-be-released proposal, reported by Politico, would mean a major departure from how the nation handles drug offenses.

At least one member of Congress is open to Trump’s plan.

“I’m all in on the capital punishment side for those offenses that would warrant that,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), a Trump ally. When a reporter asked if that included drug cases, he said it did.{mosads}

But the idea is sure to be controversial among other lawmakers, and many public health advocates aren’t interested, saying the focus should be on bolstering treatment and prevention efforts. They want Trump to steer away from war-on-drug efforts that they say haven’t worked in the past.

Despite the criticisms, Trump has been consistently pushing the idea for several weeks, saying “strength” and “toughness” are needed against drug dealers and praising other countries that execute drug lords at a recent campaign rally.

“The drug dealers, the drug pushers are — they’re really doing damage. They’re really doing damage,” Trump said March 1 at the White House Opioid Summit.

“Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty. And, by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do. So we’re going to have to be very strong on penalties.”

On Thursday, Politico reported that the White House has shopped around a plan this month to combat the opioid epidemic and could release it as soon as Monday. That plan reportedly includes a call for the death penalty to be an option in “certain cases where opioid, including Fentanyl-related, drug dealing and trafficking are directly responsible for death.”

This would be a major change from current punishments for dealers.

Federal mandatory minimum drug sentences range from, for example, five years without parole for 100 grams of heroin, to 10 years without parole for 1 kilogram of heroin, to mandatory life sentences if a person has a prior felony drug offense and if it can be proven that a death resulted from the drugs.

“There’s already pretty stiff penalties for this, so it’s not clear that we need a death penalty as well,” said Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

“I think it’s counterproductive, I don’t think it’s useful to the opioid crisis. It’s likely not a workable solution; it’s not a practical solution. It’s either going to be drawn up so broad it’s going to be unconstitutional or it’s going to be so narrow that it’s useless,” he added. 

The details — such as the criteria for who would be subject to the death penalty — are not clear, and a White House spokesman wrote in an email that the administration doesn’t comment on leaked drafts. 

“It’s not clear what the standards are going to be,” Ring said. He assumed Trump was referring to drug lords and not a lower-level drug dealer, but added it was not clear.

Holly Harris, the executive director of Justice Action Network, referred to the concept as “not serious.”

“I don’t know one single person who works in the criminal justice space who is for reform or against reform who would support that sort of initiative,” she said, adding that includes ”conservatives, progressives, law enforcement.” 

Death penalty cases take years to play out and come with a hefty price tag, Harris said.

“It would be a huge burden on judges, on prosecutors, on public defenders,” she said. “It would break our system to even consider executing that number of individuals.” 

Hailing from Kentucky, Harris said she’s seen how the opioid epidemic has ravaged her state. Some drug dealers begin selling to support an addiction and, she said, should be given treatment. 

It’s not clear that harsher enforcement efforts decrease the supply of drugs, said Harold Pollack, of the University of Chicago. 

“There’s certainly a lot of evidence that keeping the most dangerous drugs illegal and having the basic apparatus of drug enforcement keeps the prices of street drugs well above what they would be if you could buy it at CVS. There’s not a lot of evidence that turning up the dial once it’s illegal has nearly the same impact,” said Pollack, who is a Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration.

Pollack notes that in the drug trade, lives are generally already at risk.

“The kinds of drug dealer who might be subject to the death penalty are already subject to the death penalty from each other,” he said. “There’s a lot of violence in the drug market that has nothing to do with what law enforcement is doing.” 

Congress and the Trump administration have been working to tackle the opioid crisis, which has seen no signs of slowing down. Deaths involving opioids increased nearly 28 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Trump convened a commission to address the crisis, which released its final recommendations in November. He also declared the epidemic a national public health emergency in late October, a move that was extended another 90 days in mid-January. 

Advocates had expressed frustration that not much of consequence had come out of those moves. The opioid plan Trump will reportedly include public health measures that advocates could support, such as ways to increase access to treatment and ramp up prevention efforts. 

Addiction advocates have repeatedly been pushing for a focus on prevention, treatment and recovery, rather than a law enforcement approach to curbing the crisis.

Many people “sell drugs to feed their own addiction because they have a disease, and if we cure that disease, or we treat them for that disease, they will stop selling the drug,” said Andrew Kessler, the founder of Slingshot Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in behavioral health policy. 

Tags Chris Collins death penalty Donald Trump Health Heroin Morphine Neurochemistry Opioid epidemic Presidency of Donald Trump

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