Alcohol and Crime

Alcohol Misuse

The vast majority of people who consume alcohol do so safely and responsibly. In fact, according to the NIAAA, moderate consumption may even produce significant health benefits. Conversely, in 2004, the NIAAA estimated that 17.6 million people in the U.S. were dependent on or abused alcohol.

Driving While Intoxicated (DWI)

In the mid-1980s, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) brought the DWI issue to the forefront, launching one of the most successful public awareness campaigns in history. Yet, while drunk driving continues to garner a great deal of attention from public interest groups and the media, each and every year:

  • Nearly 13,000 people are killed each year on U.S. roadways in alcohol-related accidents
  • Hundreds of thousands more are injured
  • Alcohol-related crashes cost American taxpayers over $100 billion
  • Nearly 1.4 million people are arrested for a DWI each year and 780,000 are convicted
  • Of those convicted, one-third are sentenced to community corrections
  • Two-thirds of those sentenced to incarceration are repeat offenders

Alcohol Misuse and Other Crimes

In 2008, the Pew Center on the States reported that an astounding one in every 100 adults in the U.S. was behind bars. While drunk driving gets the most attention, the incidence of other alcohol-involved crimes including domestic violence, underage drinking, and assault has reached staggering proportions.
Research surveys have found that:

  • 5.3 million adults − 36% of those under correctional supervision at the time − were drinking at the time of their conviction offense
  • 40% of state prisoners convicted of violent crimes were under the influence of alcohol at the time of their offense − the more violent the crime, the greater the likelihood that alcohol was involved
  • 25% of state prisoners given a standard questionnaire to screen for alcoholism tested positive

In 2000, U.S. agencies surpassed the $100-billion-a-day barrier in spending to incarcerate individuals with serious addiction problems. Rehabilitating and managing offenders who misuse alcohol has proven to be extraordinarily difficult. Despite traditional sanctions and ever-increasing terms of incarceration, addiction drives many of these offenders to continue committing crimes, resulting in a revolving door.

Alcohol- and drug-involved offenders are overwhelming the criminal justice system, creating unwieldy court dockets, burdensome caseloads, and overcrowded jails and prisons. Yet, programs and sanctions have had little impact on the rate of alcohol-involved crime. Incarceration, the traditional justice solution, is inordinately expensive and minimally effective at best. Virtually everyone involved in this issue agrees: We cannot afford to incarcerate our way out of the problem.

These problems are exacerbated by the fact that there are no national standards for:

  • Identifying offenders with alcohol misuse issues (screening, assessment, evaluation)
  • Sanctioning them for their criminal activity
  • Providing them with the treatment and care they need to make better decisions
  • Monitoring them to ensure rehabilitation

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and scientists around the world have conducted significant research about the effects of alcohol, the nature of and consequences of alcohol misuse, and potential treatments for those who need help. Unfortunately, much of this information has never reached policy- and decision-makers in the criminal justice system. Barriers to change are widespread, including:

  • Lack of resources: Justice officials grapple with insufficient staffing, huge caseloads, heavy turnover, and a lack of resources. This combination of challenges makes it difficult for them to identify, embrace, and implement new programming.
  • A system built on conflict: The justice system is an adversarial system where decisions typically are based on argument, rather than collaboration.
  • A fear of change or political fallout: The justice system is built upon decades of tradition and precedent. Change is difficult, and practitioners often fear political fallout from any missteps, making them very risk-averse.

The issue of alcohol misuse and crime impacts not just offenders and their victims. Spouses, friends, family, employers, and communities all struggle with both the human and the economic toll of alcohol misuse. The trickle-down effect is staggering.