It’s Time to Stop Fixating on Punishment

It’s Time to Stop Fixating on Punishment

It’s Time to Stop Fixating on Punishment

Trump’s call to execute drug dealers is bizarre and irrational, but so is our criminal-justice system.


President Trump wants to execute drug dealers.

It’s not a new idea. He’s been floating it for a few weeks now, crediting it as a big idea he got from the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. (As we have already learned, President Trump holds autocrats in high esteem.) But the notion landed as one of Trump’s more popular lines at a March rally in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, an almost entirely white region in the shadow of the increasingly vibrant metro area around Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania ranked fourth in the nation last year for drug overdoses. Moon Township is nestled within the corner of the state that borders West Virginia and Ohio, which ranked first and second, respectively. No surprise, then, that talk of zero tolerance resonates strongly here. “Do you think the drug dealers who kill thousands of people during their lifetime, do you think they care who’s on a blue-ribbon committee?” the president asked, to applause.

I was outside the rally before it began, searching, among the hundreds of people lined up in the parking lot of a local airfield, for voters in the upcoming special election. That was the nominal reason for Trump’s visit: A conservative, anti-choice, pro-gun Democrat was threatening to upset a conservative, anti-choice, pro-gun Republican to take over a seat vacated by a conservative, anti-choice, pro-gun congressman who got caught pressuring his mistress to have an abortion. This uninspiring shift was taken by both parties as a profound political upheaval. So the president came to add his voice to the nearly $10 million that the GOP and its allied political-action committees had spent to keep the seat. Which is to say, this wasn’t a setting in which to expect fresh thinking about how we can face our demons together.

Still, the suggestion of imposing a death sentence for selling drugs produced a lot of shocked headlines, perhaps because the subtext was hard to miss. I spent more than an hour talking to the Trump faithful in that parking lot, and the only other people of color I saw the whole time were the black men hawking knockoff MAGA merchandise. (Hey, everybody’s got their hustle.) And Trump has been clear from the start about the people he means when he says “drug dealer”: Mexicans. “We have to build a wall,” he reminded his audience in Pennsylvania. “For people, for gangs, for drugs. The drugs have never been a problem like we have right now.”

That last part is true-ish, but stoking xenophobic anger will only make it worse. Drug overdoses have been rising notably since the early 2000s, and have climbed sharply in the past five years thanks to the opioid crisis. These “deaths of despair,” as Princeton University researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton have termed them, are part of what’s producing a dramatic spike in white mortality. Of course, as many others have noted, black and brown people have been dying for decades of the despair that so often accompanies drug addiction and the illicit drug trade. The irony is that no community has gotten the help it needs because we are all harmed by the same compassion deficit: We treat social ills with cops and prisons and death sentences rather than with the range of health-care tools—physical, emotional, and mental—that may actually solve the problem.

It’s not drugs alone. I’ve spent the past several months producing a podcast in which young people from around the country talk about their experiences inside the criminal-justice system. They are largely black and Latino, and their stories will be familiar to those who have followed the discussion about things like the school-to-prison pipeline and broken-windows policing. But the core challenges these youth face—untreated mental-health crises that turn domestic disputes into violent conflicts; the scarring of abuse and neglect, which can lead to drug or alcohol use; the fog of addiction in which irreversibly grave choices are made—would also be familiar to the frightened and frustrated people of Moon Township.

Instead of building systems to help the kids I’ve met, we’ve found ever more ferocious ways to punish them and to exact vengeance on behalf of anyone they’ve harmed. Across the country, our thinking has been confined by an instinct to lash out at our demons with rage.

And so the president wants to execute drug dealers. “The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness,” he asserted at the rally. Of the many lies Trump uttered that day, this may have been the most demonstrably false. From heroin in the 1960s to crack in the ’80s to meth in the ’00s and fentanyl now, we have repeatedly tried and failed to fix “the drug problem” through toughness. Epidemics come and go, and the novel ideas about treatment and prevention that we manage to inject into the public debate go with them. The steadily ramped-up punishment infrastructure remains in place, however. We are still trying to unwind the draconian drug laws passed by cities, states, and Congress in the wake of the crack wave.

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