How Often Does Drinking Precede The Commission Of Crimes

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, reviewed the role alcohol played in crime by looking at convicted offender data from 1996 (Greenfield, 1998). On an average day in 1996, an estimated 5.3 million convicted offenders were under the supervision of criminal justice authorities. Nearly 40% of these offenders, about two million, had been using alcohol at the time of the offense for which they were convicted. Whether the offender was on probation or was incarcerated in a local jail or a state prison, offenders were about equally likely to have been drinking at the time of the crime. What they consumed was similar, with beer being the most commonly used alcoholic beverage: 30 percent of probationers, 32 percent of jail inmates, and 23 percent of state prisoners said that they had been drinking beer or beer in combination with liquor prior to the commission of the current offense. Consumption of wine alone was comparatively rare among the surveyed offender populations.

Surveys of crime victims also indicate that offenders often had been drinking. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is one of two statistical series maintained by the Department of Justice to learn about the extent to which crime is occurring. The NCVS, which gathers data on criminal victimization from a national sample of household respondents, provides annual estimates of crimes experienced by the public without regard to whether a law enforcement agency was called about the crime. Initiated in 1972, the NCVS was designed to complement what is known about crimes reported to local law enforcement agencies under the FBI's annual compilation known as the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR). 1998 estimates from the NCVS indicate that victims of about three million violent crimes each year, or about a quarter of all violent crimes, perceived the offenders to have been drinking.

Most studies of alcohol and crime focus on offenses known to the police or on offenders serving sentences for crimes that resulted in conviction. A

notable exception is a community study in Thunder Bay, located in the province of Ontario, Canada. Pernanen (1976, 1981, 1991) collected information from a representative sample of 1,100 community residents. Among those who had been victimized, the assailant had been drinking in 51 percent of the occasions when violence occurred; two-thirds of the time (68%), the assailant was judged to have been "drunk." Pernanen also noted that the findings for the Thunder Bay study are consistent with many other North American studies using police records. It is usually found that half of all violent offenders had been drinking at the time of the offense.

The most common pattern found in studies of violent crimes is that 60 percent or more of the events involve drinking by the offender, both the offender and the victim, or the victim only. The results of Wolfgang's classic study (1958) of criminal homicides in Philadelphia are typical (see table 2). The most common pattern when alcohol was present was for both victim and offender to have been drinking.

If the foregoing findings indicated the extent to which drinking was causally implicated in violent crime, it would be remarkable. It could then be argued that alcohol accounts for a majority of violent offenses. But neither the presence of alcohol in a crime nor the intoxication of an offender is necessarily an indication that alcohol influenced the occurrence of the crime. Because drinking is such a common activity, it is likely that alcohol is sometimes simply present but not causally relevant. Drinking is also sometimes offered by offenders as an excuse for the crime, as a way of avoiding being held accountable.

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