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Alcohol and Crime: Behavioral Aspects - Explaining The Association Of Alcohol And Crime

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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 falling—but 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).

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