Attorney General Jeff Sessions encouraged federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty "when appropriate" in order to combat the opioid crisis, in a March 20 memo first obtained by NBC. The instructions came a day after President Donald Trump called for capital punishment for some drug offenders.
To combat the opioid crisis, Sessions writes, "federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal," such as working with the Department of Justice Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit and bringing civil and criminal actions against opioid makers and distributors. U.S. Attorneys should also seek the death penalty when the law allows:
Federal prosecutors have been allowed to seek the death penalty for certain drug offenses since 1994, Politico reports, thanks to a law signed by President Bill Clinton. Yet Politico also reports that no prosecutor has sought death for a federal drug offense in the 24 years since then, and civil liberties groups argued after Trump's speech on Monday that the Supreme Court has ruled against using the death penalty in cases where the defendant did not commit murder.
But that makes it a strategically brilliant policy for Sessions and Trump to endorse. Trump said Monday that most big drug dealers do only 30 days or a year in jail (which is not true), and Sessions wants longer sentences for drug offenses, propped up with mandatory minimums. Between the two of them, something like a 15- or 20-year mandatory minimum for importing or dealing illicit fentanyl would probably hit the spot. That would be unlikely to pass the Senate as an opening offer, but it looks a lot more generous when you compare it to executing people. Never mind that the statutes Sessions cites aren't all that relevant to the opioid debate, which involves more online activity and accidental overdoses than it does armed scuffles over drug turf.
Seeking the death penalty under existing laws, meanwhile, could still net life and de facto life sentences.
By throwing fuel on the fire Trump started, Sessions is priming the chattering class and the media to see single and multi-decade sentences as a humane alternative to execution. Those sentences are more humane, but only when compared to capital punishment. Trump and Sessions have rapidly and unapologetically shifted the Overton Window on drug penalties. With the most barbaric option on the table, punishments that are simply cruel and excessive are destined to seem more tolerable.
You can read Sessions' entire memo after the jump.