The death penalty has been a controversial issue for decades, but unlike many other issues it does not have a clear partisan divide one way or the other. Typically, more Democrats than Republicans oppose the death penalty, but 32 percent of Democrats still support the death penalty, and among its supporters are the last two Democratic presidents and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. While President Obama called the death penalty “deeply troubling,” he still states he supports it “in theory” and took virtually no steps to revoke it. The issue was only brought up once in a Democratic debate, when Bernie Sanders stated his opposition to it, but he never made its abolition into a key distinction between him and Hillary Clinton. Overall, it is an issue that Democrats don’t really like to talk about.
This, however, is no longer possible since President Trump has been vocally calling for the use of the capital punishment on drug dealers, which Democrats have condemned this for obvious reasons. The opioid epidemic is more complicated than a narrow focus on criminal drug dealers because of the massive role that overprescription of legal drugs plays. In 2012, for instance, enough painkillers were legally prescribed to give every American their own bottle. Additionally, Trump hasn’t clarified what he qualifies as a drug dealer who deserves the death penalty. Is he referring to drug kingpins like El Chapo who have been involved in numerous murders, or is he referring to street level drug dealers? Trump’s praise of the authoritarian Philippine Dictator Rodrigo Duterte can give some indication as to his stance, and which is extremely concerning, given that Duterte doesn’t just execute drug dealers, he executes victims of substance abuse and encourages civilians to murder anyone involved with drugs in the streets. Duterte is a genocidal maniac and the fact that Trump sees his policy as worthy of admiration is repulsive. The drug crisis isn’t the simple issue that Trump and others make it out to be. It is important to understand that many drug users are people born into unfortunate circumstances with few opportunities, and see drugs as a necessary, if painful, recourse. It is ludicrous to suggest that these people are so irredeemable they deserve the death penalty. There would be to many victims of unfortunate circumstances executed by this policy to call it anything besides unjustified murder.
Unfortunately, these unjustified killings are not just some hypothetical in the United States, given our extensive use of the death penalty. The system of capital punishment is deeply flawed, as exemplified by the fact that, because of it, our country has murdered a great number of innocent people. A study from the National Academy of Sciences which involved researchers from universities all over the country claims that an estimated four percent of individuals executed were falsely convicted. As of 2014, this means that about 120 people have been wrongly convicted and then put to death in the United States. A policy that leads to even one innocent death is a failure, let alone over a hundred! The reality of the situation is that it is impossible to know with 100% certainty if someone committed a crime. Eyewitnesses constantly falsely identify suspects (particularly minority suspects, again demonstrating why Democrats should be especially opposed to the death penalty) and evidence is mishandled every day. With a life sentence, those falsely convicted can be exonerated, and innocent individuals can get their lives back, but with capital punishment, there is no appeal. Foolproof reform is impossible, yet without it, we are going to keep killing innocent people.
President Trump’s proposal to execute drug dealers is particularly heinous, but so are all of the wrongful executions that have already happened, and will inevitably keep happening until the death penalty is repealed. The Democrats have never taken a unified stance on this issue, but in light of Trump’s proposed escalation, they must now. Democrats must stand together and call for an end to the killing.
The views expressed above are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Penn Democrats.