Sessions Backs Death Penalty for Drug Dealers

A.G. supports Trump capital punishment proposal in speech

Attorney General Jeff Sessions / Getty Images
March 23, 2018

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday added his voice to those of other public officials who have called in recent days for the use of the death penalty in cases of serious drug trafficking.

At a speech in Tallahassee, Sessions promised the Department of Justice would "pursue the tough sentences [drug dealers] deserve," up to and including the death penalty where it is permissible under state and federal law.

"Let's be clear about this: Drug dealers take lives every day in America. As President Trump has said, career drug traffickers can take more lives than a mass murderer. That's why the president has ordered us to seek the death penalty in drug trafficking cases where it is appropriate to do so. And just yesterday we began implementing this order at the Department," Sessions said.

President Donald Trump declared on Monday that seeking the death penalty for some drug dealers would be a component of his strategy for combating America's opioid epidemic. Although he did not explicitly call for the establishment of new federal statutes, Trump did make clear that he believes state and federal authorities should pursue the death penalty where law allows it.

Sessions issued a memo Wednesday to U.S. attorneys, outlining preexisting federal statutes which allow for seeking the death penalty in certain drug-trafficking-related cases. Sessions wrote he "strongly encourage[s] federal prosecutors to use these statutes," citing the more than 64,000 deaths caused by drug overdose in 2016 alone.

In his speech Thursday, Sessions said preliminary data suggest that that death rate will continue to grow in 2017, justifying in his eyes the use of state and federal statutes that allow for executing drug dealers.

Sessions reiterated his department's commitment to charging "the most serious, readily-provable offense." Sessions has adopted this attitude before in overturning orders from the Obama Department of Justice. In May of 2017, Sessions instructed U.S. attorneys not to seek to avoid federal mandatory minimums in charging; in January, he granted those same attorneys discretion again to charge marijuana-related offenses under federal law. Both orders were justified on the ground of charging in accord with federal law, rather than the more selective model preferred under Attorney General Eric Holder.

"We cannot allow drug dealers to walk our streets thinking that they will get away with their crimes or that they will only get a slap on the wrist. They need to know that this administration will not hesitate to pursue the maximum sentences allowed by law, including the death penalty. Our message should be clear: Business as usual is over," Sessions said Thursday.

Additionally, Sessions called on Congress to back the president's proposal with a review of existing federal law.

"Congress should support these efforts. Where our laws need to be strengthened, Congress should strengthen them. Congress can be sure that those of us in this room today will carry them out faithfully and with vigor. That's what we do every day," he said.

A group of Republican Congressmen announced such plans on Thursday. A new bill, proposed by Sens. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), and John N. Kennedy (R., La.), would enhance the mandatory minimum penalties for those who deal in the super-lethal opioid fentanyl, just three milligrams of which can kill an average adult man. Graham additionally promised that he would hold hearings to consider expanding the federal death penalty.

Sessions also announced Thursday that the Drug Enforcement Administration would "surge" 250 task force officers, as well as additional analysts, to the areas of the United States most affected by the opioid crisis. These resources, Sessions said, would help combat a crisis which seems only to be growing worse.

"Our mission is not hopeless. Crime rates aren’t like the tides. We can take action that can make a difference. President Trump believes that our country can break the vicious cycle of drug abuse, addiction, and overdose that has devastated countless American families, and so do I. The Trump administration will continue to use every tool at our disposal to end this drug crisis," Sessions said.