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The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group concerned with criminal justice issues, released a report March 17 that criticizes disparities in the treatment of people arrested for drug possession and those arrested for drunk driving.

According to the report, drunk driving accounts for 1.8 million arrests annually, and drug offenses 1.1 million. Currently, 1 out of 4 inmates nationwide, more than 300,000 people, are either in prison or awaiting trial on a drug charge. In 1983, that ratio was 1 out of 11. Typically, first-time drug-possession offenders can receive up to five years, says the report.

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By contrast, drunk drivers are typically given two days in jail and often have the alternative of community service. The results of the two categories of crime, however, are equally severe, says the Sentencing Project. Estimated deaths from drug overdoses, drug-related disease, and violence associated with trafficking are put at 21,000 a year. Drunk driving directly kills some 22,000 people a year (overall alcohol-related deaths are put at 94,000).

Further, the report argues, black and Hispanic men are imprisoned at a disproportionate rate for drug possession.

The report lists nine policy recommendations. Among them: expand the use of "drug courts" that emphasize treatment instead of imprisonment (an idea strongly backed by new Attorney General Janet Reno); repeal mandatory sentencing and reduce sentence lengths for drug offenders; and shift law-enforcement priorities toward high-level drug traffickers instead of street sales.

Mark Kleiman, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School who follows drug issues, applauds the call to repeal mandatory sentencing but has doubts about other recommendations. Focusing on high-level traffickers would only escalate drug violence and deaths, he says. Dampening demand for drugs by attacking the street-level retail trade makes sense, in his view.

"Opponents of imprisonment like you to believe that everyone arrested was peacefully using the drug in his own home," Mr. Kleiman cautions, adding that the circumstances of arrest don't show up in a report like this.

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