Drug, Alcohol, Race, & Class

If you are convicted of substance abuse, your race and class have a lot to do with whether you'll be sent to prison, according to a report released this spring by the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project.

The report reveals that drug users (disproportionately low-income African-American and Latino males) are punished far more harshly than are drunk drivers (predominantly white males), even though more deaths result each year from drunk driving than from all drug-related causes. (Annual alcohol-related deaths total 94,000, while an estimated 21,000 die each year through overdose, disease, or violence associated with the drug trade.)

"In light of the harm each of these problems of substance abuse causes," the report's co-author Marc Mauer told Sojourners, "it's clear that the punishment doesn't fit the crime." Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, said that courts tend to see drunk drivers as people who need help with a problem, and thus emphasize rehabilitation, education, and returning the offender to the community. Drug users, on the other hand, are seen as criminals and more often sent to prison for their offense.

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners. Brigitte Kerpsack assisted with research.

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Sojourners Magazine August 1993
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