President Trump’s recent advocacy for expanding the death penalty to include drug dealers emerged slowly. First, we heard that he was discussing it privately with allies. Then he hinted at it during a meeting in the White House. Then he called for it publicly during a rally. And then, on Thursday, Politico reported that an actual policy proposal to expand the penalty was close to completion.
A slow emergence, but one that’s very much on-brand for Trump. This is, of course, the guy who in 1989 bought a full-page ad in the New York Daily News advocating for his home state to reintroduce the penalty in response to the arrest of a group of young men for a rape in Central Park. That those young men were later exonerated fazed Trump not in the least; during the campaign, he stated flatly that he still believed them to be guilty.
At the time of that attack, the nation was seeing its violent crime rate surging toward a peak.
When Trump declared his candidacy, the violent crime rate was ticking upward, as was the national murder rate.
But both figures were still near historic lows; both, in fact, were lower than when Barack Obama took office in 2009.
But Trump nonetheless ran a campaign as though he was running for commissioner of the New York Police Department in 1989, wailing about surging crime rates and promising to take a strong hand in the fight against murder and violence. He would be the law-and-order president, he said, in this dangerous moment.
When Trump swore in Jeff Sessions as attorney general last year, Sessions mirrored his new boss, calling the crime spike “a dangerous permanent trend.”
Advocating the death penalty for drug dealers is an idea squarely of that early 1990s era. It is a proposal that aligns cleanly with Trump’s image of the president he wants to be.
It is also detached from popular opinion, recent trends and any demonstration of efficacy.
Since the Supreme Court once again allowed executions in 1977, application of the penalty has trailed the actual crime surge. The peak of violent crime was in 1991; the peak in death sentences came five years later. The nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center collects data on sentencing, executions and crime rates that we can use to look at long-term trends.
That graph highlights Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma because those three states alone make up 50 percent of the executions that have taken place since 1977. Here, again, we see a lag: The peak of sentences was in 1996, and the peak in executions was in 1999.
That delay makes sense: People are sentenced, fight the sentence and are eventually put to death.
This also means, though, that the trend since 1991 has been a decline in violent crime rates. The trend since 1996 has been a decline in death sentences. The trend since 1999 has been a decline in executions. These downward trends aren’t uninterrupted, as we’ve seen with violent crime in recent years. But on all three metrics, the situation in 2018 is much, much different than it was in 1988.
In Gallup’s most recent polling on the subject, conducted in October 2017, support for the death penalty for convicted murderers hit the lowest point since 1972, when the death penalty was illegal.
If Trump had been elected president in 1988, his rhetoric and his policy proposals would have been squarely in line with the data and the electorate. Violent crime and murders were surging. The number of executions each year was rising. Public support for the death penalty was rising.
But it’s not 1988. Trump argues that the opioid crisis necessitates harsh action, though it seems clear that he would support expanding the death penalty regardless.
There’s an important point worth noting, though, as identified by the Death Penalty Information Center. The organization conducted an analysis of murder rates in states with and without the death penalty. A central idea behind the policy, of course, is that it’s a deterrent, that people considering a life in drug-dealing will change their minds once they learn that they might be executed.
States that have the death penalty consistently have higher murder rates than non-death-penalty states.
This is an administration that seems to pride itself on taking actions based on instinct and not on data. Advocating an expansion of the death penalty fits squarely with that idea.