WASHINGTON — Mary Daly has heard the criticism: That the tough-on-drugs approach favored by the Trump administration is cruel, ineffective and a return to the failed policies of the 1980s.
She's not buying it.
"We need to use tough prosecutions if we are going to get our way out of this epidemic," said Daly, a longtime federal drug prosecutor recently tapped to oversee the Justice Department's ambitious efforts to attack America's opioid abuse crisis. "We don't ignore the need for prevention and treatment efforts, but the notion that tough enforcement is the wrong approach is wrong."
Daly, who prosecuted gang members and drug traffickers for 13 years in New York and Virginia, said her work has given her a close-up look at the drug problem.
President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have made combatting the opioid epidemic a cornerstone of the crime-fighting agenda they both share. Trump has encouraged the use of the death penalty against traffickers when possible, a request Sessions then codified in a directive to federal prosecutors.
Daly wasn't responsible for that policy, but her selection aligns with the tough approach. She said she supports Sessions' undoing of an Obama-era policy that aimed to show more leniency to lower-level drug offenders. And she favors strict enforcement to rein in the epidemic that saw a record 42,000 opioid related overdose deaths in 2016.
The daughter of William Barr, who was attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, Daly was responsible for some of the biggest and most complex international drug trafficking cases in the Eastern District of Virginia, maintaining a heavy case load even as supervisor of the narcotics unit, said James L. Trump, a fellow prosecutor who worked alongside her there. She brought a quiet confidence to the courtroom, and a desire for fairness and consistency, he said.
"She believed that adherence to the law and consistency with the law would bring about just results," said Trump, who has no relation to the president. "If there was a philosophy, it is what I find in most good prosecutors which is that the law is the law, whether our personal beliefs are different in terms of sentencing policy doesn't really matter."
In her new role, much of Daly's focus will be on fentanyl, the deadly painkiller fueling the crisis. Under her watch, the Justice Department is going after dealers who use the anonymity of the internet to peddle fentanyl from overseas into American homes, pharmacies and doctors who recklessly overprescribe pain pills, as well as the kind of major traffickers Daly prosecuted in the field.
"We have a unique drug on the table in fentanyl. Very small quantities can kill people," Daly said, adding that the deadly narcotic is showing up in cocaine and other less lethal drugs. "We do have to recalibrate a bit in terms of how we're addressing the fentanyl threat and that may mean looking at people who are supplying lower quantities."
Both conservative and liberal critics fear such a philosophy could mark a return to the policies of the 1970s and 80s that unduly affected minority communities and flooded prisons by ensnaring mid- to low-level dealers.
"It's deadly, I get that, but that's why we need to treat it in a really thoughtful way," said Mark Holden, general counsel for the conservative Koch network.
The left-leaning Brennan Center said the department's focus should be on major traffickers. But it also pointed to efforts to target opioid manufacturers and distributors, which Daly also oversees, as a positive step. Already under Daly's watch, the Justice Department has thrown its weight behind local officials in hundreds of lawsuits against the manufacturers and distributors of opioid painkillers.
Prevention and treatment are also part of the department's larger strategy, with prosecutors recommending treatment as part of a sentence and grant money devoted to programs.
"I would argue they go hand-in-hand," Daly said. "Oftentimes enforcement provides a good intervention in someone's life to get them into treatment in a way that nothing else does."