At the campaign rally in Pennsylvania last week, President Trump seemed to advocate the death penalty for some drug dealers. Now, reportedly, the administration is finalizing a plan for responding to the opioid crisis that includes capital punishment for dealers in some cases. Politico says:
According to language circulating this week, the Trump administration will call for the death penalty as an option in “certain cases where opioid, including Fentanyl-related, drug dealing and trafficking are directly responsible for death.”
Trump’s stated rationale for imposing the death penalty is this:
If you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty. These people can kill 2,000, 3,000 people, and nothing happens to them.
Actually, something does happen to them. If convicted, they face stiff sentences. Moreover, there are differences in the chain of causation between shooting deaths and substance abuse related deaths.
Even so, I can conceive of situations where, personally, I’d support the death penalty for a drug dealer. Whether congressional Republicans would support legislation enabling this outcome is another matter. The Politico article suggests there would be substantial Republican opposition. In addition, it’s quite possible that the Supreme Court would find the imposition of the death penalty in this context to be “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In any case, the proposal Trump is contemplating could mark a turning point in the debate over criminal sentencing. In recent years, the debate has been one-directional — that direction being lighter sentences.
Bipartisan legislation has called for lower sentences for drug dealers in the federal system and for the early release from federal prison of many drug dealers who haven’t served their sentence. In addition, former president Obama released something like 1,000 federal drug offenders on his own initiative.
Underlying this drive for leniency has been the claim that the drug dealers in question are non-violent offenders. But President Trump is making the point that dealing certain drugs inherently threatens death. Hence, his comparison between killing someone with a gun and contributing to multiple deaths by dealing deadly drugs. It’s a point that needs to be made.
Trump may also force the leniency crowd to play defense. As I said, the debate won’t be one-directional any longer.
This much seems clear. If Congress does pass lenient sentencing legislation, which seems unlikely, that legislation very likely will be dead on arrival at the Trump White House. Trump clearly views such legislation as a step in the wrong direction.