Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo Wednesday instructing prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug-related offenses whenever “appropriate” in order to bolster the federal government’s efforts to combat the opioid crisis.
“In the face of all of this death, we cannot continue with business as usual,” Sessions said in a memo sent to the country’s U.S. Attorneys. “Drug traffickers, transnational criminal organizations, and violent street gangs all contribute substantially to this scourge. To combat this deadly epidemic, federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal.”
Sessions’s mandate comes after President Donald Trump resurrected the idea of giving drug dealers the death penalty during a Monday speech in New Hampshire. There, Trump explained that capital punishment could be employed against the “big pushers, the ones who are really killing people.” But that approach will likely be subject to legal challenge, as the Constitutionality of using capital punishment for those convicted of non-homicide offenses remains in doubt.
The Supreme Court narrowed the scope of offenses for which the death penalty can be applied in Kennedy v. Louisiana, a 2008 case in which the court held that a man who raped but did not kill a child could not be constitutionally executed.
Federal prosecutors are, however, empowered to seek the death penalty for individuals who deal in very large quantities of drugs under the so-called “Kingpin Statute,” though the death penalty has never been sought in such a case.
Critics of the Trump administration’s approach argue that increasing the number of federal death-penalty cases will monopolize government resources and produce stagnation in the courts.
“Death-penalty cases are extremely difficult and cumbersome and complicated,” one former federal prosecutor told Reuters when Trump first floated the idea. “They take a long time, lots of resources and every U.S. Attorney’s office has a lot of limited resources.”