By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed federal prosecutors on Wednesday to seek the death penalty in drug-related cases whenever it is "appropriate," saying the Justice Department must boost efforts to counter America's epidemic of opioid abuse.
His mandate to prosecutors followed a plan announced by President Donald Trump earlier this week that called for executing opioid dealers and traffickers, and for stiffer sentencing laws for opioid trafficking.
The call for greater use of the death penalty in federal drug cases has already sparked a backlash from criminal justice reform groups. They say it is the wrong response to a public health crisis and harks back to the 1980s-era war on drugs policies that led to racial disparities in prosecutions.
While the death penalty is used in the United States, it is generally handed down in federal cases only in connection with the most heinous crimes.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 61 federal prisoners currently sit on death row.
Many American states also impose the death penalty, although also only for the most heinous crimes. However, states have struggled to carry out death sentences in recent years because of a lack of access to drugs used in executing people.
"In the face of all of this death, we cannot continue with business as usual," Sessions said of the opioid epidemic in a memo sent to the country's U.S. Attorneys offices.
"Drug traffickers, transnational criminal organizations, and violent street gangs all contribute substantially to this scourge. To combat this deadly epidemic, federal prosecutors must consider every lawful tool at their disposal," he said.
Critics say greater use of the death penalty could tie up resources at U.S. Attorneys offices, because death penalty cases are more complex and take longer to move through the court system.
“Death penalty cases are extremely difficult and cumbersome and complicated,” one former federal prosecutor told Reuters when Trump first announced the plan. “They take a long time, lots of resources and every U.S. Attorneys office has a lot of limited resources."
Under U.S. law, there are only four limited circumstances in which the death penalty can be sought in federal drug cases.
Those include cases which involve racketeering, cases involving the use of a firearm resulting in death during a drug trafficking crime, cases where a murder is committed as a part of a crime enterprise and cases involving large quantities of drugs.
Brett Tolman, a former U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah who is now an attorney with Ray Quinney & Nebeker, said Trump’s proposal was unwarranted because the Justice Department had already started to seek out stiffer penalties in drug cases by requesting sentencing enhancements, a blunt legal tool that can add a large amount of prison time to a person's sentence.
“They are already going in a direction that is so aggressive," he said. “Why does the president even want to mess with the death penalty?”
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Frances Kerry and Tom Brown)