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November 12, 2023

Former Prez Trump again talking up the death penalty as a way to address drug problems

Back in March 2018, as noted in this post, then Prez Donald Trump started talking up the idea of the death penalty for drug dealers as part of his stump speeches.  Way back then, I noted that constitutional questions about any such law would be sure to reach the Supreme Court and also that, at that time, there had not been any federal execution for well over a decade.  I also noted that the then-GOP-controlled Congress was working on a sentencing reform bill that could have been a vehicle for adding his Trump's capital sentencing idea.  

Fast forward five+ years, and now Prez-candidate Donald Trump is again talking up the idea of the death penalty for drug dealers as part of his stump speeches.   This Hill article, headlined "Trump doubles down on death penalty for drug dealers," explains:

Former President Trump doubled down on calling for the death penalty for drug dealers Saturday. “President Xi in China controls 1.4 billion people, with an iron hand, no drug problems, you know why they have no drug problems?” Trump said at a campaign event in New Hampshire Saturday. “Death penalty for the drug dealers.”

“You want to solve your drug problem, you have to institute a meaningful death penalty for… a drug dealer,” the former president continued.

This isn’t the first time the former president has called for the death penalty for drug dealers.  Back in June, Trump notably advocated for drug dealers getting the death penalty in a Fox News interview, despite the fact it would have applied to Alice Johnson, a woman whose sentence Trump commuted in 2018.

Though I consider Trump's comments to be more political posturing than policy proposal, I am struck by how the legal landscape has changed since I was commenting about these ideas back in March 2018.  With Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg replaced by (Trump-appointees) Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett, the current Supreme Court seems much more likely to uphold broader applications of the federal death penalty.  I make that statement in part because these Justices expressed no concerns about the 13 federal executions that were carried out in the final six months of Trump's presidency.  And, of course, the sentencing reform bill I was talking about in March 2018 became the FIRST STEP Act that was signed into law by Trump toward the very end of that year.  (Might Trump sometime start describing his "Death penalty for the drug dealers" proposal as a second step in sentencing reform?)     

Prior related posts from 2018:

November 12, 2023 at 11:14 AM | Permalink


I liked that way the interviewer reminded Trump that in 2018, he commuted Alice Johnson's life sentence without parole for conspiracy to engage in cocaine trafficking to the 21 years she had served in prison ("time served"); in 2020, Trump also gave Alice a full pardon. If there had been a death penalty for drug dealers, as Trump is now suggesting, then Alice Johnson would probably have already been executed, for "bad choice of boyfriend", rather than any real cocaine dealing activities. And yet, the amount of fentanyl and heroin being trafficked in the United States now cries out for more forceful remedies and punishments. Life without parole in Federal prison is probably a sufficient sentence for the appropriate drug dealers. There are many drug dealers who probably don't deserve life without parole, but who have those sentences. I know of several shocking cases. One inmate received a life sentence pursuant to the old (pre-amendment) mandatory life sentence under 21 U.S.C. section 851. One of his prior felony drug convictions was for cocaine residue on scales, which I consider a b.s. felony, to use as a predicate for a life sentence. I also know of a black inmate from S.E. D.C. who got a section 851 mandatory life sentence at 22, based on three prior felony drug convictions which involved a total of 3 grams of heroin and 1.8 pounds of marijuana. At his age, and given the total amounts of drugs involved should not have received a Federal life sentence, in my view. He could easily live for more than 50 years in Federal prison, at a cost to the BOP (before extraordinary health costs) of more than $50,000 per year; that's at least $2.5 million over 50+ years. Sheer insanity.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Nov 12, 2023 3:21:11 PM

Doug --

Just curious: Do you view Trump's criminal justice record overall as a positive or a negative?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 12, 2023 10:01:47 PM

No drug dealer should receive the death penalty nor should they receive a life sentence. These draconian sentences do not deter drug use or drug sales, and waste taxpayer money. The Federal sentencing guidelines need a massive overhaul in which drug trafficking carries a maximum sentence of 10 years and one is eligible for parole after serving 15% of one's sentence.

Posted by: anon | Nov 12, 2023 11:27:43 PM

Hey Bill: Trump's "criminal justice record overall" as President is SO VERY multifaceted --- encompassing big (and small) developments ranging from the FIRST STEP Act to restarting federal executions to DOJ appointments to SCOTUS appointments to (failed) USSC appointments to COVID criminal justice reactions to clemency practices --- and any sophisticated assessment of that record ought to keep in mind the context of the work of other recent presidents (especially other GOP presidents) and other GOP Prez candidates and the era's other political leaders. In short, I have to give the classic lawyerly answer to a complicated question: "It depends."

And, of course, there is also Trump's "criminal justice record" from before he was Prez and since he was Prez that would need to be part of any global assessment of his contributions in this arena. So, to be clearer, I do not think I can give an adequate answer short to your question in this space. Indeed, his clemency record alone is so full of virtues and vices, I struggle to reach an overall assessment even in that one arena. Same goes for his (lack of significant) activity in the arena of marijuana reform and broader drug policies.

Do you have a short answer to your question? Perhaps you could get me invited to one of those (inside-the-Beltway) Federalist Society parties I read about where we could discuss this topic for the hours that it merits.

Posted by: Doug B | Nov 13, 2023 9:29:23 AM

Doug --

As you know, I'm a simple-minded man, so yes, I can give you a short answer. Although not without strong positive elements (appointing Sessions and Barr; judicial appointments (especially at SCOTUS), and support generally for the DP and police), his record was a negative because of his support of the FSA, and because of his own behavior, which was hardly a model for fidelity to the rule of law.

Perhaps I will soon have the opportunity to discuss this with you at a venue a lot more appealing than the Beltway Club.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 13, 2023 10:41:32 AM

What Trump says is all over the place on all sorts of issues. What he does is a better guide. His commutation of Alice Johnson shows his real opinion.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Nov 13, 2023 10:46:04 PM

Trump's pardon of Alice Johnson, a little over 2 years after her commutation, but one day after she gave a speech at the Republican National Convention, shows his real opinion even better.

Do something for the Big Dog, and the Big Dog might do something for you. Kiss the ring and receive a blessing. Make the right friends and you'll go far.

So-called meritocracy doesn't really work unless you who you owe some favors to--and who owes you.

Posted by: Bloviatis | Nov 16, 2023 2:23:50 AM

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