A Grain Of Saul: Executing Drug Dealers Isn't The Answer, President Trump

Trump's plan to tackle opioids is almost perfect.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

As the Trump administration grapples with solving the opioid epidemic, Politico is reporting that they are settling on a controversial measure: the death penalty for drug dealers. 

The idea, according to documents Politico has viewed, is to invoke capital punishment in certain cases where the dealing of lethal opioids like fentanyl and heroin can be directly linked to a death. Trump and his administration plan to sell the idea as him "getting tough" on drug dealers. 

Frankly, I can understand the urge to hand a drug dealer the ultimate penalty. I grew up in a county that has been devastated by the opioid epidemic, and every time I've lost a friend to an overdose I've often found myself frustrated by the lack of practical solutions to stop this sweeping problem. And while it's a heartbreaking, infuriating, horrific experience to lose someone to a drug overdose, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest capital punishment would deter criminals from selling drugs.

Ogden Utah USA- July, 16 2016: oxycontin medication at the pharmacy on a shelf.
Ogden Utah USA- July, 16 2016: oxycontin medication at the pharmacy on a shelf. Shutterstock / PureRadiancePhoto

The White House opioid commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The severity, swiftness and certainty of a punishment are taken into consideration when laws are made to deter criminals from committing a crime. These three punishment characteristics are usually the biggest factors in determining whether it will effectively stop crime from happening. But social science studies have taught us recently that of those three, the swiftness and certainty of a punishment are much bigger deterrents than the severity of a punishment. 

As Vox reporter German Lopez put it, "there's no good evidence that tougher punishments or harsher supply-elimination efforts do a better job of driving down access to drugs and substance misuse than lighter penalties. So increasing the severity of the punishment doesn't do much, if anything, to slow the flow of drugs."

There's another potential way the plan could backfire: getting a conviction for capital punishment is incredibly difficult. If President Trump wants to put a drug dealer to death, there's a better chance that dealer ends up walking free than there would be if he were facing sentencing behind bars. 

But the plan won't just be ineffective, it's also immoral.

If America's history has taught us anything, it's that unjust punishment is commonplace. In the complex justice system that dictates the law of the land, innocent people are often punished while the guilty walk free. Perhaps nothing illustrates that more than the number of people who are wrongly executed.

In 2014, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claimed that 4.1 percent, or about one in every 25 people sentenced to be killed by execution, is innocent. Since 1973 alone, 144 people on death row have been exonerated, about 1.6 percent of all death sentences. Those numbers together imply what lawmakers, judges and lawyers often fear: innocent people are being killed by capital punishment in the United States. While prosecutors have objected to the study's findings, the authors say 4.1 percent is actually in the lower range of their estimate. 

Of course, handing down the ultimate sentence is irreversible. Prisoners who are sitting behind bars with a lengthy sentence or put on death row often go through appeal processes, and many are ultimately exonerated. But once a prisoner is killed by execution, there is no appeal process. There is no opportunity to live out your final years of life in freedom if you've been executed.

Expanding capital punishment is not the solution to the opioid epidemic; if anything, we should be thinking about how to end it

The good news is that the Trump administration's opioid proposal includes some great ideas. Drafts of the plan call for Medicare patients to have better access to addiction treatment, for doctors to raise the standards for federally reimbursed opioid prescriptions, for local communities to expand access to the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone, and for states to participate in a database that identifies people who seek out multiple opioid prescriptions from different doctors.

These are all data-based solutions that have been borne out by tireless research and come at the recommendation of experts across the country. If President Trump wants to be hailed as a hero for his plan, or simply wants to see it work, he and his administration would be wise to focus on these reforms and give any plans to execute drug dealers the capital punishment. 

Cover image via JStone / Shutterstock.com

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