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Alcohol and Crime: Behavioral Aspects

Studies Of People Who Commit Crimes

A second tradition of research on alcohol and crime concerns the relationship between alcohol and criminal conditions—on 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 treatment—for both alcohol-specific and non-alcohol-specific crimes—is 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).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawAlcohol and Crime: Behavioral Aspects - Empirical Evidence On Alcohol And Crime, Studies Of Criminal Events, Types Of Offenses, Biases In Studies Of Events