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Drug Users Treated Much More Harshly Than Drunk Drivers, Study Shows


April 1993

Despite the carnage they inflict on society, drunk drivers are treated much more leniently than drug users, according to a recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project (Jonathan Marshall, "States Tougher On Drug Users Than Drunk Drivers, Study Says," San Francisco Chronicle, 3/17/93, A5).

In an examination of state sentencing policies for drunk drivers compared to drug offenders, the Sentencing Project found that drunk drivers were overwhelmingly given misdemeanor sentences and fines, license suspensions, or community service, while drug possession arrests were generally booked as felonies that often led to stiff prison terms. Sentencing Project Assistant Director Marc Mauer noted that "drunk drivers are treated by the criminal justice system as people with problems, while drug users are treated as criminals. These differences cannot be explained by the relative harm to society, and have a disparate impact on low-income people and minorities."

The report contrasts the relative costs of alcohol abuse and drug abuse. The social costs of drinking are by various measures substantially greater than the social costs of illicit drug use, according to the figures. Alcohol use overall contributes to about 94,000 deaths annually at an estimated cost to the economy of $85 billion. Drunken drivers kill approximately 22,000 people yearly, causing an estimated $46 billion in injuries and related costs. Drug use is linked to about 21,000 deaths yearly, including overdoses, disease, and violence, with an estimated social cost of $58 billion. It costs about $6 billion a year to keep the 300,000 drug offenders who are in prison behind bars. Drug offenders make up about one in four prison inmates nationwide.

The report by Cathy Shine and Marc Mauer, is entitled Does the Punishment Fit the Crime? Drug Users and Drunk Drivers, Questions of Race and Class, March 1993.

For a copy of the report contact the Sentencing Project, 918 F Street N.W., Suite 501, Washington, D.C. 20004, (202) 628-0871. Price $8.