The Times-Standard reached out to some of Humboldt County’s top law enforcement officials to ask their opinion of the Trump administration’s recent direction to federal attorneys to seek tougher penalties — including the death penalty — for cases involving large-scale drug traffickers.
Following President Donald Trump’s call for harsher penalties, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed U.S. Attorneys in a March 21 memo to seek harsher penalties including capital punishment, saying “we cannot continue with business as usual.”
Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said the West Coast is experiencing a drug epidemic and spoke in favor of “harsh penalties” at the state and federal levels.
“We have [a] steady stream of heroin and methamphetamine coming into our county and it is all coming through our southern border with Mexico,” Honsal wrote to the Times-Standard. “The president should be focused on trying to influence Mexico to shut down their drug operations in their country and also to increase border security. I welcome the federal government to take part in the drug trafficking investigations.
“We have worked with the DEA and FBI on several drug investigations locally and I welcome their support and assistance in future operations,” Honsal continued. “I also would like to see harsh penalties for drug trafficking both statewide and federally. We have to hold these traffickers accountable for the devastation the drugs are causing.”
Sheriff’s office officials say that they have seized more heroin within the first three months of 2018 than was seized in both 2017 and 2016 combined.
According to a 2017 California Department of Public Health report, Humboldt County had the state’s second highest opioid overdose rate in 2016, at 22.35 per 100,000 residents — five times the state’s average rate that year.
District Attorney Maggie Fleming said she doesn’t see a good reason to comment because she does not have any information to add on the issue.
“In preparing the article, I’m sure you have encountered the studies contrasting crime rates in countries and states with and without the death penalty that have not detected a deterrent effect,” Fleming wrote in an email to the Times-Standard.
The effect of the death penalty on crime deterrence has been the subject of numerous studies, with results varying.
In a 2012 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s affiliate National Research Council, researchers reviewed scientific literature on the effects of the death penalty. The study found that these studies were “not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates,” but did not address drug trafficking.
In an article published Thursday, the nonprofit organization FactCheck.org — a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania — spoke to Carnegie Mellon University public policy professor Daniel Nagin who chaired the 2012 report. Nagin said that he did not know of any research on whether the death penalty deters drug trafficking specifically.
Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson said he is not willing at this time to go as far as to support imposing capital punishment “for any but perhaps the most egregious, repeat drug dealers (such as cartel leaders).”
“However, I do see an argument can be made that major drug traffickers are akin to ‘serial killers’ in some respects, literally destroying millions of lives, and that overly lenient drug policies aren’t going to get the job done,” Watson wrote in an email to the Times-Standard. “I would not want to see a mirror in the U.S. of the brutal campaign waged by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, though.”
President Donald Trump has long spoken approvingly about countries like Singapore that harshly punish dealers. During a trip to Asia last fall, he did not publicly rebuke Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who authorized extrajudicial killings of drug dealers.
“Drug traffickers kill so many thousands of our citizens every year,” Trump said in March. “That’s why my Department of Justice will be seeking so many tougher penalties than we’ve ever had and we’ll be focusing on the penalties that I talked about previously for big pushers, the ones that are killing so many people, and that penalty is going to be the death penalty.”
Watson said he supports mandatory, lengthy prison sentences upon conviction.
“This may best be served at the federal level with federal prosecution and incarceration,” Watson said. “There has to be some distinction though for low-level dealers who may only traffic small quantities in support of their own habits versus suspects caught with large amounts of controlled substances (over an ounce) and repeat drug sales offenders.”
Watson said he supports throwing the full book at the most egregious offenders and “make illicit drug dealing carry serious consequences in this country.”
“Balance this with more treatment programs, services and education for drug users,” Watson said. “Go after the big pharma companies and corrupt doctors, criminally and civilly, who are over-prescribing opioids and further fueling the epidemic.”
Humboldt County and the Yurok Tribe have joined hundreds of local governments in litigation against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors, claiming they misled the public on the addictive nature of opioid prescriptions and caused an opioid addiction crisis.
County Sheriff’s Office Drug Task Force Lt. Bryan Quenell told the Board of Supervisors earlier this month that restrictions on opioid prescriptions have led to an increase in heroin use and trafficking within the county.
“The overwhelming people that I speak to that are addicted to heroin started on some form of prescription medication,” Quenell said. “... Heroin is easier to get now than those prescription narcotics.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article. Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.