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Alcohol and Crime: Behavioral Aspects


In nineteenth-century American thought, the link between alcohol and crime was strong and certain. The showman P. T. Barnum was echoing countless other writers when he stated, in a temperance pamphlet published at mid-century, that "three-fourths of all the crime and pauperism existing in our land are traceable to the use of intoxicating liquors." These claims made by the temperance movement spurred research on the alcohol-crime relationship around the turn of the century, including John Koren's sophisticated multifactorial analysis in 1899 of the role of alcohol in causing crimes. Koren sounded a note of caution to those who would assume that alcohol caused crime: "When an offense is committed in a state of intoxication or by a habitual user of strong drink, the causal relations seem unmistakable, even inevitable, no matter how infinitely complicated the problem appears to the criminologist. . .. [But] we are still confronted with the question: Assuming that alcohol had never existed, how many and which of the criminal acts perpetrated during a period would not have been committed?" (Koren, pp. 49, 55).

In the polarized atmosphere of national Prohibition (19191933) and after repeal, empirical research on the linkage of alcohol and crime declined, with relatively little advance in research design or in theoretically relevant knowledge until Marvin Wolfgang's influential 1958 study Patterns in Criminal Homicide. In the years since Wolfgang described the frequency with which alcohol use accompanies homicides, the potential linkages between alcohol and crime have been explored by social and behavioral scientists from several disciplines.

Empirical evidence on alcohol and crime

Alcohol can be involved in crime in two ways: laws regulating its use or distribution can be violated, and its effects might generate behavior that violates other laws (Collins, 1991). (People may also commit crimes to obtain money for alcohol, but because alcohol is relatively inexpensive, this phenomenon does not occur as often as it does among drug users.) In the United States, alcohol-specific crimes include drunken driving, public drunkenness, underage drinking, and illicit production of alcohol. The present discussion is concerned with alcohol's role in nonalcohol-specific crimes. Most of the analyses on alcohol crime use one of three methods, with a focus either on criminal events, on people who commit crimes, or on populations with different alcohol policies and drinking patterns.

Studies of criminal events

Both drunkenness and the commission of a crime are events rather than conditions. Most of the empirical literature on alcohol and crime merely reports the percentage of criminal events in which alcohol was present either in the perpetrator or the victim. These figures come from studies of prisoners and jail inmates, surveys of victims, police reports, and official statistics. North American studies find that 5560 percent of U.S. homicide offenders and 3540 percent of Canadian homicide offenders were drinking alcohol prior to the crime. In Finland, Norway, and Sweden, countries with low homicide rates, alcohol is present in 6580 percent of offenders in assaults. The corresponding share of drinking victims is also relatively high, about 4550 percent (Pernanen, 1996).

In many violent offenses, both the offender and the victim have been drinking prior to the offense. The presence of alcohol in both parties appears to be associated with social interactions that increase the probability of violence. In 26 percent of the homicides studied by Wolfgang, the victim had precipitated the homicide by being the first to commence the interplay or resort to physical violence. Alcohol use was associated with victim precipitation: Alcohol was present, in either the victim or the offender, in 74 percent of the victim-precipitated events compared to 60 percent of other homicides. The victim was drinking in 69 percent of the victim-precipitated cases and in 47 percent of other cases (Wolfgang). Given that victims and perpetrators are often drinking together before the event, disentangling the role of alcohol in the two parties can be difficult (Pernanen, 1991).

For some interpersonal crimes, alcohol is more directly involved in victimization. For example, the vulnerability of drunken persons to robbery by "jackrollers" has long been recognized. People who are drinking are attractive targets: they are less able to protect themselves and to exercise sound judgment (Collins and Messerschmidt). Alcohol as a "victimogenic" factor is a relatively unexplored aspect of the alcohol and crime question, a limitation that probably reflects ideological concerns: establishing that victims are often drunk might diminish their perceived blamelessness (Miers).

Types of offenses

A common generalization about the role of alcohol in different types of crimes is that alcohol more often accompanies violent crime against people than property crime, but these findings are inconsistent (Collins and Messerschmidt; Graham, Schmidt, and Gillis). For example, a 1998 study of alcohol and crime produced by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that similar proportions of convicted offenders in state prisons had been drinking when they committed violent offenses (37.5 percent) or property offenses (31.8 percent) (Greenfeld). In samples of people who are arrested for crimes, however, there are larger differences in alcohol involvement in violent versus property crime (Wiley and Weisner).

Alcohol involvement in different kinds of crimes may involve different mechanisms. For example, although robbery involves premeditated violence, it is usually thought to be qualitatively different from the violence that typically occurs as a result of interpersonal conflict (Collins and Messerschmidt). And indeed, studies of offenders show that the percentage of alcohol involvement tends to be lower in robberies than in homicide and assault (Greenfeld). In property offenses, some offenders may drink to steady their nerves before committing the crime; thus, the motivation for the crime is independent of drinking (Collins, 1991). Drinking may even be a deterrent to professional property crime because it leads to unreliability, creating a barrier to admission to crime partnerships (Cordilia).

Biases in studies of events

The percentage of crimes in which the participants were drinking may be biased by several factors. First, these percentages are based on crimes that are detected and reported to the authorities, a select portion of all criminal events. Intoxicated offenders may be easier to apprehend, especially for incidents in public places where potential witnesses are more numerous; they are more likely to leave evidence connecting them to a crime and are more likely to be recidivists known by the police. If substance abusers are more likely to be recidivists, they may be overrepresented among prison inmates (Pernanen, 1989; 1996). These biases may lead to an inflated proportion of alcohol involvement in crime. Other factors might decrease the true proportion of alcohol involvement: for example, alcohol abusers may be diverted into treatment rather than sentenced, reducing the proportion of prison inmates who were drinking at the time of their crime (Pernanen, 1996).

Interpreting event-based studies

Information about the co-occurrence of alcohol and criminal events is widely reported, but does not establish a relationship between alcohol and crime. Knowing the proportion of offenders who were drinking at the time of the crime is not meaningful unless we know the proportion of drinkers among people who did not commit crimes; if these proportions are the same, then there is no association of drinking to crime. The National Research Council Panel on the Understanding and Control of Violent Behavior concluded that existing data was not "sufficient to show that alcohol use or intoxication increases the general risk of violence. To test that hypothesis with prevalence data, one would need a benchmark: the fractions of people not involved in violence or crime while drinkingwith appropriate adjustments for demographic characteristics of participants, time of day, day of week, and place of occurrence" (Reiss and Roth, p. 184).

Collecting appropriate comparison information is difficult, and the appearance of alcohol in such a large proportion of some crimes had led some commentators to suggest that it is unlikely that such a large proportion of people in general would be drinking at a particular time. However, Evans notes that in the West of Scotland, the proportion of offenders who were intoxicated at the time of their offense corresponds with the proportion of men who would be expected to be intoxicated at similar times (Evans). Moreover, among convicted offenders, drinking at the time of the offense is no more than would be expected given typical drinking patterns (Kalish; Ladouceur and Temple). For example, data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that one-third of state prison inmates reported drinking heavily just before they committed the offense, but 20 percent of all inmates reported that they drank very heavily every day the entire year before entering prison (Greenfeld). Drinking before an offense may reflect a typical pattern rather than be specifically related to the commission of a crime.

Studies of people who commit crimes

A second tradition of research on alcohol and crime concerns the relationship between alcohol and criminal conditionson the prevalence of alcoholism among criminals, on the criminal history of alcoholics, and on the intertwining of the "criminal career" and the "alcoholic career" (Collins, 1981). In general populations, heavier drinkers are more likely to have engaged in criminal behavior, and comparisons of prison populations to the general population show high rates of heavy drinking, drinking problems, and alcohol disorders among prisoners. For example, while 14 percent of men and 4 percent of women in the general population drink more than one ounce or more of alcohol per day, these proportions among inmates are 47 percent and 22 percent (Collins, 1993; Graham, Schmidt, and Gillis).

Relationships between drinking habits and criminality partly reflect the similarity in the demographic distribution of both alcohol use and criminal behavior in the population. Heavy drinking is more common among men than among women at all ages, and peaks among men in the general population in their early twenties. At the same time, men account for 80 to 90 percent of those arrested and convicted for serious crimes in the United States, with serious crimes peaking during the young adult years (Clark and Hilton; Collins, 1981). The near-coincidence in the distributions of heavy drinking and crime practically insures some positive correlation between heavy drinkers and criminals in the population. However, it is difficult to disentangle the causal connections between drinking problems and criminal behaviors. Developmental studies of adolescents show that aggressive behavior generally precedes alcohol use, and longitudinal studies of alcoholics suggest that criminality generally precedes the development of a drinking problem (Goodwin, Crane, and Guze; Pittman and Gordon; White). Both drinking and crime may have similar risk factors, and their relationship may be explained by coexisting predispositions to both drinking and crime (Collins, 1981; Lipsey et al.).

In the United States, relationships between criminal records and drinking problems are likely to be affected by ongoing changes in the alcoholism treatment and criminal justice systems. The courts' tendency to refer intoxicated offenders to alcoholism treatmentfor both alcohol-specific and non-alcohol-specific crimesis likely to produce samples of treated "alcoholics" who are younger and more criminally involved, while lowering the prevalence of "problem drinkers" in prison populations (Mosher; Schmidt and Weisner).

Studies of populations

In studies of populations, the unit of analysis is a population rather than an individual or an event. These analyses examine the covariation between alcohol consumption and violence at an aggregate level such as a country or a state. In studies incorporating time series analysis, per capita alcohol consumption is correlated with crime levels over a period of years. Such analyses show, for example, that increases in consumption are related to rises in homicide rates and assault rates in Sweden, assault rates in Norway, rates of violent crime and some property crime in the United Kingdom, and male homicide rates in Australia (Ensor and Godfrey; Lenke; Lester). In the United States, rates of rape, robbery, and assault (but not murder) tend to rise along with per capita consumption and fall with increases in state-level beer taxes (Cook and Moore 1993a; 1993b).

Time series analyses in different countries imply that the association of alcohol consumption and violent behavior tends to be higher in drinking cultures with a more "explosive" drinking pattern in which drinking to intoxication is common (Lenke). These quantitative findings echo the anthropological evidence collected by Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton in their influential treatise Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation. This evidence demonstrated wide variations in drunken behavior between different cultures and in the same culture at different historical periods, suggesting that the link between drinking and violence is at least as much a matter of cultural expectation and custom as of pharmacology (MacAndrew and Edgerton).

Natural experiments

In time series analyses, many co-occurring social trends could account for covariation in both drinking and crime. For example, per capita consumption and crime rates could both rise at the same time due to increases in the number of young men in the population in the postwar period. Although this problem can be partially solved with statistical techniques (Skog), trends may still be confounded with other trends. A more powerful analysis can be conducted by studying crime rates before and after sudden changes in alcohol availability or policies about alcohol distribution. Because population characteristics are unlikely to change drastically at exactly the same time as changes in alcohol availability, these "natural experiments" provide an opportunity to distinguish the effects of alcohol consumption from those of naturally-occurring trends (Lipsey et al.).

Restrictions or expansions of alcohol availability can arise from changes in alcohol policies, from changes in distribution caused by labor strikes, and as a result of social movements. Leif Lenke examined the consequences of several policy changes in Sweden, including rationing during the First World War, the repeal of a ration-book system in 1955, the legalization of sales of medium-strength beer in grocery stores in 1965 and of sales of strong beer in grocery stores in some provinces in 1967, and the discontinuation of Saturday opening hours at state-owned alcohol sales outlets in 1981. Although the results were not completely consistent, Lenke concluded that "When availability of alcohol has been reduced or increased, the rates of violent crimes have tended to follow the same direction" (p. 103). In Norway, assault rates declined following the closing of the state-owned alcohol sales outlets on Saturdays (Olsson and Wikstrom), and in the former Soviet Union, male homicide rates decreased by 40 percent following the alcohol reform of 1985 (homicide rates rose again when the reform broke down as a result of the illicit market and the dissolution of the Soviet Union) (Shkolnikov and Nemtsov).

A series of studies from the Nordic countries have examined the consequences of temporary reductions in alcohol availability due to labor strikes. In general, these studies show reductions in casualty ward injury admissions, assault and battery cases, and incidents of family violence during the strike period. For example, during a 1972 strike in Finland, there were noticeable reductions in levels of aggravated assaulta crime in which 8090 percent of both perpetrators and victims in Finland are intoxicated (Mäkelä, 1980). During a second Finnish strike in 1985, there was a 20 percent drop in "rowdiness at licensed entertainment events" and a 20 percent reduction in crimes of violence (Österberg and Saila).

Major social or national movements that affect alcohol consumption can also affect alcohol-related violence. During the 1980 Gdansk shipyard strike, out of which emerged the Polish Solidarity movement, the strikers imposed a prohibition on alcohol in the shipyard. The ban was quickly picked up and extended by the local government throughout the province, and temporary alcohol bans became a frequent symbolic gesture by both the Polish government and Solidarity as a signal of serious intent and yet a desire to avoid violence (Moskalewicz). Although drinking per se was not banned, a local survey showed that most residents did not drink at all during the prohibition, and that 84 percent of the respondents thought that the prohibition had reduced the number of violent incidents. According to the authorities, "a drop in the number of crimes was noted, although the militia activity in the town was reduced to a minimum" (p. 378). The local ambulance service reported an unusually quiet time (Bielewicz and Moskalewicz).

The drop in crime in Gdansk may have resulted not only from the ban on alcohol sales but from an increased sense of common purpose, such as has been noted in grave times elsewhere to produce perturbations in social statistics. Gustav Aschaffenburg noted the effects of such a mixture of abstinence and common purpose in nineteenth-century Ireland: "Father Matthew succeeded, by the power of his personality and his enthusiastic speeches, in making total abstainers of 1,800,000 persons in the course of a few years. The result was that, whereas, in 1828, 12,000 serious crimes were committed in Ireland, in 1841 the number had sunk to 773, the sixteenth part!" Aschaffenburg added, however, that "[t]he slight permanence of this unexampled success proves, it is true, that the method employed was not the right one" (p. 129).

Interpreting population-level studies

Comparing rates of drinking and of crime across different countries or cultures provides only a weak demonstration of associations between the two. As Klaus Mäkelä notes, "cultural variations in drinking patterns are based on lasting historical traditions, and they may well be resistant to a certain degree to changes in the level of consumption. To take a somewhat extreme example, we have no reason to believe that the French would start drunken fights should they lower their consumption to the same level as the Scots or the Finns" (Mäkelä, p. 333). Studies of alcohol and crime are done mostly in societies that worry a lot about alcohol (Scandinavia, English-speaking countries) and that combine histories of explosive drunkenness with histories of strong temperance sentiments. Links between alcohol and crime may be weaker in other countries (for example, southern Europe) with different drinking customs.

Changes in policies that increase or decrease alcohol availability can result in changes in alcohol-related violence; however, examples of major changes in policy are rare (Graham, Schmidt, and Gillis). The effects of these changes have usually been studied in countries that have a government monopoly on alcohol distribution and a work force that is sufficiently unionized for a strike to have a significant impact on the availability of alcohol. Because strikes cause only short-term supply interruptions, longer-term effects are difficult to predict. When policies are changed permanently, it is difficult to disentangle the alcohol effects from the social motivations that gave rise to the policy in the first place (Pernanen, 1993).

Interpretation of population-level studies is also complicated by the fact that these studies cannot link individual criminal behavior to individual consumption and thus cannot directly address the question of whether individuals who consume alcohol are more likely to behave violently (Hennekens and Buring; Lipsey et al.). For example, as Pernanen and others have noted, when the supply of alcohol is cut down, the frequency of social interaction is also reduced, with a resulting decrease in the probability of interaction and, consequently, interpersonal crime. Changes in availability may lead to crime by making victims more vulnerable, attracting offenders and victims to high-risk environments, or affecting the frequency of male gatherings (Lipsey et al.). That is, it may not be drinking per se that reduces or increases levels of crime, but the effect may be through other factors that are influenced by the change in drinking.

Explaining the association of alcohol and crime

We turn at last to the vexed question of causation: does alcohol cause crime? Other than for the alcohol-specific offenses, for which the answer is a matter of definition, the answer must be "it depends what you mean." It is clear that drinking is only rarely followed by a criminal act; there is no general, consistent effect of alcohol on crime or violence analogous to its consistent effects on motor and cognitive functioning. Kai Pernanen proposes a "thought experiment" in which people are given increasing doses of alcohol. At sufficient doses, they all will start staggering or fallingbut we do not know who, if anyone, will become aggressive (Pernanen, 1989). Connections between drinking and violence must be conditional: drinking in combination with other factors can result in a crime. If alcohol has any causal effects, they occur for some people and under some circumstances. Examining these circumstances and conditions constitutes an active area of research in experimental psychological studies on both animals and humans (Lang 1993).

On what level can we posit that alcohol increases the likelihood of crime? The question of causality usually implies that an individual who drinks is more likely to commit a crime than a sober person. To test this hypothesis requires research designs that show an association between drinking and crime at the level of the individual and the criminal event. Most of the existing research is inadequate to demonstrate such an association: studies of criminal events cannot demonstrate that individuals are more or less likely to commit crimes when drinking, and studies of drinking careers and criminal careers cannot disentangle the relationships between drinking, crime, and coexisting predispositions for both.

On a population level, however, we might propose that crime rates are affected by the level or patterning of alcohol consumption. This is a different kind of hypothesis, proposing only that changes in drinking can be followed by changes in crime on a population level, without requiring the variables to be connected within the individual committing the crime. This possibility highlights other pathways by which alcohol might lead to violence, for example, by making potential victims more vulnerable, by attracting offenders and victims to high-risk environments, or by increasing the number of male gatherings (Lipsey et al.). For example, criminologists have written about a "routine activity" approach to crime, in which criminal acts require convergence in space and time of likely offenders, suitable targets, and the absence of capable guardians against crime (Cohen). Drinking activities can contribute to this convergence by attracting people to certain locations, increasing the frequency of interactions with other people, and making people more vulnerable to attack (Parker and Cartmill; Parker and Rebhun).

Implications for alcohol policy

From a pragmatic policy perspective, it may not matter whether alcohol causes crime or at what level such an association exists. If evidence accumulates that a particular policy change is followed by decreases in crime and violence, the "true" cause of the decrease may be drinking or may be something else related to drinking, but specifying the precise causal mechanism is unnecessary for demonstrating effects on public health. For example, reductions in alcohol availability may be followed by reductions in crime by affecting the offender, the victim, or the interaction between them, but the effect on the crime rate is the same. The practical applications of such a view are wide-reaching and do not require a determination of causal influence in the conventional sense.

In the modern era, most studies of alcohol and crime in English-speaking countries have focused their attention on the relationship as it may exist within the individual psycheoccasionally extending the view to cover factors in the immediate situation of the criminal event. Much remains to be learned, indeed, about the role of alcohol in criminal events, and about the intertwining of drinking and criminal behaviors. But from the point of view of policy, such studies often focus on elements of the connection that are the hardest to change. The studies of change over time reawaken one to the existence of historical change and to the possibility of doing something to prevent crime by influencing the fact, context, and consequences of drinking. This is a worthy agenda for future research and experiment.

Barbara C. Leigh

Robin Room

See also Alcohol and Crime: Treatment and Rehabilitation; Drinking and Driving; Drugs and Crime: Behavioral Aspects; Excuse: Intoxication


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