The death penalty is not conservative, and most Trump supporters know it
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With a horrifying death toll from our national opioid crisis — 64,000 people killed in 2016 alone — it’s high time we turn all of our resources and attention to solving this unrelenting scourge that’s ravaging our families and orphaning too many children.
But the president’s big idea — to in fact kill more people by making drug dealing a capital offense — is not only impractical and very likely ineffective, it’s immoral. And in a twist we have come to see time and time again from a president whose political positions are unmoored from any underpinning belief, it isn’t conservative, either.
Which is to say, conservatives — even Trump supporting conservatives — should not embrace it.
The war on drugs — a big-government product if there ever was one — has been wildly unsuccessful, by any metric. It’s wholly unsurprising that a whopping 91 percent of the country, according to a 2017 ACLU survey, thinks we must reform the criminal justice system to get away from broad, ineffective drug punishments that have not worked, except to create a massive industrial prison complex.
That belief has infiltrated even the staunchest of conservative circles, too, with a range of support from the likes of Newt Gingrich to Rand Paul to Grover Norquist.
Likewise. in state houses and state legislatures all over the country, Republican lawmakers have jumped on the prison reform bandwagon with both feet.
But perhaps most surprisingly, even within Trump’s own base, the appetite is for reform and not for harsher drug penalties or more imprisonment.
According to a 2017 poll from the right-leaning Charles Koch Institute of 1,200 voters who participated in the presidential election, 81 percent of Trump supporters said reforming the criminal justice system was either very important or somewhat important.
Enter Trump. On Saturday, he spoke admiringly of an answer the president of Singapore had given him in a recent conversation: “He said ‘We have a zero tolerance policy. That means if we catch a drug dealer, death penalty.'”
Instituting the death penalty for drug dealers, he said, is “a discussion we have to start thinking about. I don’t know if this country’s ready for it.”
Demonstrably, we are not.
Yet, Trump pines openly and unashamedly for the United States to be more like brutal totalitarian regimes like China and the Philippines, where thousands of drug dealers and users have been killed extrajudicially.
To be clear, what Trump is suggesting isn’t all that far outside the bounds of what current federal law currently allows. The death penalty already can be applied to four types of drug-related cases, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, including murder related to drug trafficking and the death of a law enforcement officer that relates to drugs.
But more broadly executing drug dealers as attempted deterrence is a deeply flawed policy. Despite his affection for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, by Duterte’s own admission drug use there has gone up, not down.
That makes perfect sense as part of the larger evidence of capital punishment’s ineffectiveness. A panel of the National Academy of Sciences unanimously concluded in 2012 that there was no credible evidence of deterrence, and in a 2008 study by the University of Colorado, 88 percentr of the nation’s leading criminologists agreed.
States without the death penalty have had consistently lower murder rates. And national murder rates have declined steadily since 1992, despite fewer executions.
Despite this, some conservatives have clung fast to the merits of the death penalty, and it’s likely many Trump supporters will defend the president’s call for it here, purely based on unmitigated emotion.
Those who embrace the idea shouldn’t call themselves conservative.
For one, as I’ve written before, the death penalty is plainly unjust. When the number of wrongful convictions and death penalty cases that are eventually exonerated number in the hundreds, if not thousands, we can not call it a moral system. The state should not be in the business of executing innocent people, even if unknowingly.
For another, it is costly. Death penalty trials can cost $1 million more than ones in which life without parole is sought, and it is far more expensive to house a death row inmate than a general population prisoner. That should bother conservatives, too.
Finally, if we Republicans are to be the pro-life party -— and I believe we must be — it is simply inconsistent to support capital punishment but not abortion. Either we believe every life is valuable or we do not.
American voters know that the war on drugs hasn’t worked and they are ready for something new. Many conservatives are, for the first time, open to reforms. From Reagan to Obama, we have tried a “lock ’em up” approach to drug crimes.
Trump can lead on drugs, but only if cooler heads can dissuade him away from his basest instinct to talk tough, and instead actually act smart. Those cooler heads must include conservatives — and to do that they must reject capital punishment once and for all.
Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com.
This column first appeared in the New York Daily News.
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