During a rally on March 11, 2018, President Donald J. Trump proposed the death penalty for drug traffickers in an effort to curb organized crime and the opioid crisis—a policy which seems to be, at least in part, inspired by similar policies in China and Southeast Asia. The President pointed to the non-existent menace that is rampant inner-city violent crime and placed the blame squarely on drug traffickers.
Since then, the President has repeatedly doubled down on his ill-conceived scheme (as he so often does). His proposal would not only expand the scope of the War on Drugs to an unprecedented front, but would also be a remarkably stupid idea (from a remarkably stupid president). Below are three reasons why the President’s plan will not work.
Reason 1: It is probably unconstitutional.
The president is looking to enforce a federal statute in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 which permits the federal government to seek the death penalty for those who traffic large quantities of narcotics. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations have so far declined to seek the death penalty for drug traffickers; therefore, the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality of this statute (more specifically, whether it complies with the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which forbids “cruel and unusual punishment”).
The highest court in the Land has, however, made numerous rulings on the constitutionality of the death penalty for various heinous crimes. In Coker v. Georgia (1977), the Court ruled 7-2 that the death penalty for the rape of an adult woman was unconstitutional, calling it “grossly disproportionate.” The Court went further in Enmund v. Florida (1982), when it struck down the death penalty for “a felony in the course of which a murder is committed but does not kill, attempt to kill, or intend for a killing to take place.” Finally, in Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for any crime in which “the victim does not die and death was not intended” (including child rape) was unconstitutional.
Needless to say, the President’s new policy would likely be immediately challenged in court after the first death sentence is handed down. With Justices Ginsburg and Breyer having joined Justice Kennedy’s majority ruling in Kennedy, and Justices Kagan and Sotomayor unlikely to dissent, the President’s policy will probably be deemed unconstitutional if it makes it to the Supreme Court.
Reason 2: It does not deter crime.
One of the main purposes of the death penalty is to act as a deterrent to crime. However, questions persist regarding its effectiveness as a deterrent. For certain crimes, execution would certainly be a deterrent. For example, if a new law was passed that made jaywalking punishable by firing squad, one could expect to see fewer jaywalkers in the near future. For more serious crimes, however, there appears to be a consensus that capital punishment does little to deter evildoers. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that only 5% of leading criminologists believe that the death penalty is a deterrent to homicide, while 88% disagree.
But what about for a crime like drug trafficking? Might the threat of lethal injection make drug dealers rethink their occupation, lowering both non-violent and violent crime? Not likely, according to renowned economist Steven Levitt, who points out that the yearly mortality rate for a drug dealer is often higher than that of a death row inmate. In other words, in a given year, a drug dealer is more likely to die than someone on death row (whether by execution or other causes). And given that lethal injection appears to be a humane method of execution relative to the various other ways a typical drug dealer could die, it remains doubtful that the turquoise gurney would strike fear in the hearts of gangbangers.
One could also look to studies of countries outside America which examine the effect of capital punishment on crime. A 2009 Columbia University study compared homicide rates in two similar city-states: Singapore and Hong Kong. Singapore maintained the death penalty for crimes such as murder, drug trafficking, and even drug possession. Singapore saw a spike in executions in the mid-1990’s, a time period in which it executed more people per capita than every other country except Turkmenistan (a country which has since abolished the death penalty), followed by a dramatic decline. Hong Kong, on the other hand, abolished capital punishment in 1993. In the abstract of the study, the researchers concluded the following: “Homicide levels and trends are remarkably similar in these two cities over the 35 years after 1973, with neither the surge in Singapore executions nor the more recent steep drop producing any differential impact. By comparing two closely matched places with huge contrasts in actual execution but no differences in homicide trends, we have generated a unique test of the exuberant claims of deterrence that have been produced over the past decade in the U.S.”
Reason 3: It is a waste of time and money.
Aside from its ineffectiveness and unconstitutionality, the President’s idea would also be expensive to enforce. A study published in the Los Angeles Times on June 20, 2011, found that the state of California had spent $4 billion on capital punishment from its reinstatement in 1978 to 2011. California only executed 13 individuals during that time period, which worked out to roughly $308 million per execution. It also found that the state’s death row inmates cost $184 million more per year than its life-without-parole inmates. Considering that those staggering numbers are only the statistics of one state, one can only imagine how much costs would swell nationwide if the capital punishment was available for convicted drug traffickers. Of course, the Republicans—being the party of “fiscal responsibility”—would surely never be supportive of such reckless spending (ignoring the Iraq War, Bush and Trump Tax Cuts, and Trump’s golfing trips).
Despite the many roadblocks which stand in the way of the successful enforcement of the statute, the President appears to be determined to once again embarrass his own Administration. Of course, the ensuing discussion about whether capital punishment works will probably detract from the real debate which ought to take place in the United States, which is whether capital punishment has a place in a so-called “developed” and morally upright society in the 21st century.
In Kennedy, Justice Kennedy pointed to a line from the Warren Court’s decision in Trop v. Dulles (1958), which held that the revocation of citizenship as punishment for a crime was unconstitutional: “The [Eighth] Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” There is no doubt that the authors of the Eighth Amendment would not find citizenship revocation or the execution of child rapists to be “cruel and unusual.” However, Justice Kennedy argued that the way that society defined “cruel and unusual” had changed since the 18th century, and thus the application of the Eighth Amendment ought to change as well: “Evolving standards of decency must embrace and express respect for the dignity of the person, and the punishment of criminals must conform to that rule.”
Executing drug traffickers would certainly not conform to said evolving standards.