By Maggie Maslak
The Trump administration’s call for increased use of the death penalty in drug-related crimes will not address the root causes of the opioid crisis, one Catholic advocate said Thursday.
“To suggest the use of the death penalty as a way to address the opioid epidemic ignores what we know to be true: the death penalty is a flawed and broken system of justice,” said Krisanne Murphy, managing director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which opposes the death penalty and promotes restorative justice.
“The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis and it needs to be addressed as such. Suggesting the death penalty as a solution to the opioid epidemic is simply a distraction from dealing with the real problem,” she told CNA.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration released a memo encouraging federal prosecutors to pursue the death penalty for drug traffickers in certain cases.
“The opioid epidemic has inflicted an unprecedented toll of addiction, suffering and death on communities throughout our nation,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a March 20 memo.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses claimed the lives of more than 64,000 Americans in 2016, and remains the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50.
“To combat this deadly epidemic, federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal…this should also include the pursuit of capital punishment in appropriate cases,” Sessions continued, saying “we cannot continue with business as usual.”
Sessions listed several existing statutes which could warrant capital punishment, including racketeering activities, the use of a firearm resulting in death during a drug trafficking crime, murder in a continuing criminal enterprise, and dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs.
The push for tougher penalties is part of a three-pronged plan to fight the drug abuse crisis within the nation. The plan also includes efforts to reduce demand for and over-prescription of opioids and cut off the supply of illegal drugs, as well as efforts to boost access to treatment for those affected by the opioid epidemic.
While the memo released by Sessions was met with controversy, it does not change what is currently allowable under federal law, Murphy said.
“The suggestion the Trump Administration put forth is nothing new and only reiterated what is currently on the books,” she explained.
Particularly controversial is the recommendation for prosecutors to pursue the death penalty for “dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs.” While federal statutes allow for capital punishment in such cases, the punishment has never before been pursued on these grounds, a Justice Department official said, according to CNN.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told CNA that the “U.S. Supreme Court has categorically stated that the death penalty is unconstitutional for crimes against individuals that do not result in death. That is unequivocal.”
He pointed to a 1977 case, “Coker vs. Georgia,” where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for a rape that did not result in death, and similarly overruled capital punishment in another Georgia kidnapping case.
“Prosecutors are to take a look at the law, which is the same as it has been, and pursue the death penalty when it’s appropriate,” he continued.
However, he noted the distinction between crimes against an individual versus crimes against the state.
Typically, Dunham said, crimes against an individual would be lower-level drug dealers, in which case, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that capital punishment would be unconstitutional if it is not a crime resulting in death.
In cases of higher-level drug dealing, which is typically international, most treaties and international law will not extradite an individual who may face the death penalty.
“The death penalty is clearly unconstitutional in respect to small-dealers, and it is ineffective with respect to international drug trafficking because no country will turn over any drug trafficker to the United States who may face the death penalty,” Dunham said.
As a result, he does not believe the attorney general’s memo will open the door to capital punishment being used for more non-murder crimes.
Ultimately, Murphy was critical of the use of the death penalty as an effective way to combat the growing opioid crisis within the U.S.
Instead, she suggested transferring the funds which would have been used for the death penalty toward supporting healthcare professionals who provide support and treatment for individuals impacted by drug use.
“Those suffering from addicting, their families, and their communities need healing and restoration,” Murphy noted, saying, “the death penalty does not provide either.”
“Solutions to any instance of harm must be restorative and allow for the flourishing of all people. We must seek resources for prevention, rehabilitation and treatment – not retribution and vengeance.”