How Or Why Does Alcohol Contribute To Crime

There are a number of possible explanations offered for alcohol's role in crime:

The need for money to support drinking may cause some individuals to commit crimes to generate cash to support their habit.

The pharmacological effects of alcohol can compromise drinkers' cognitive ability and judgment and raise the likelihood of physical aggression.

Expectations that alcohol makes drinkers aggressive may increase the chance of violence.

Standards of conduct and accountability for behavior may differ for sober and drunken activities (these differences can result in an increase in the likelihood of criminal behavior after drinking).

These possible explanations are not mutually exclusive. All may sometimes accurately describe how drinking causes crime. Two or more of the explanations may even apply to the same incident.

Committing ''income crimes''—to obtain money for drinking—is not thought to be an important explanation. Although the cost of maintaining an addiction to relatively more expensive drugs (e.g., Heroin and Cocaine) is high, the price tag for supporting heavy drinking is usually modest. In most of the United States, for example, one could support a habit of daily heavy drinking for 10 dollars or less. The majority of individuals could maintain such a habit without resorting to crime, although many heavy drinkers spend more than this minimal amount on alcohol. There is virtually no information in the research literature about the likelihood or frequency of involvement in income crime to support drinking, but alcohol is not thought to be a major factor in income crimes. This does not mean it never happens, only that it is uncommon.

If alcohol is not an important factor in the occurrence of income-generating crime, why do so many property offenders (approximately 30 percent of inmates in 1996) report they were under the influence of alcohol at the time they committed such offenses? At least two explanations are possible for the high correlation between drinking and property crime. The first suggests that the correlation is simply coincidental, not causal. A second reason (put forward by both Collins, 1988, and Cordilia, 1985), is that a property offender who has been drinking is more likely to be caught than is a sober one. This reason makes sense based on the known impairment effects of alcohol. A drinking offender may not be as competent or careful as a sober one, so drinking offenders may be overrepresented among offenders who are caught and thus known to criminal-justice officials.

Alcohol impairs cognitive ability, including one's own capacity to communicate clearly and the capacity to understand the verbal and behavioral cues of others. In addition, a person whose abilities have been impaired by alcohol is less able to make decisions and carry out appropriate and effective actions. Pernanen, in his early work (1976), discussed how alcohol-impaired cognitive ability can lead to violence. When one or both parties who are interacting have been drinking, there is an increased potential for misunderstanding that can lead to conflict and that may in turn escalate to violence. One factor in such a scenario is what may be called a ''reduced behavioral response repertoire.'' Alcohol impairs a drinker's capacity to conceive and utilize the wide range of verbal and other behavioral options that are available to sober individuals. Alcohol-induced cognitive impairment may also diminish the drinker's capacity to foresee the negative implications of violent actions. In summary, one way that alcohol increases the likelihood of violence is its negative effect on cognitive capacities, and these effects lead to an increased risk of violence.

It has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments that both actual alcohol use and the belief that alcohol has been consumed can raise levels of aggression. In laboratory experiments using competitive encounters between opponents in which the winner can apply an electrical shock to the loser, subjects who have been given alcohol behave more aggressively. Evidence gathered by Bushman and Cooper (1990) and by Hull and Bond (1986) also indicates that subjects who have been told they have received alcohol, but who actually have been given a placebo, are more aggressive in their administration of electrical shocks. These findings suggest that beliefs about alcohol's behavioral effects can themselves affect behavior.

Expectations that alcohol use leads to aggressive behavior probably have sociocultural roots. Anthropologists such as Heath (1976a, 1976b) and MacAndrew and Edgerton (1969), for example, noted that societies differ in the behavior that occurs after drinking. Some of these differences may be attributable to racial or ethnic differences in physiological reactions to alcohol, but it is also clear that there are normative variations in what behaviors are expected or acceptable after drinking. In fact, behavioral norms after drinking may vary within societies. MacAndrew and Edgerton noted that during certain ''time-out'' periods, usual standards of behavior are suspended. For example, festivals or Mardi Gras celebrations are often characterized by high levels of drinking and behavior that is considered deviant or criminal during normal times.

Alcohol appears to be implicated in violence in another indirect way. Drinking is sometimes used as an excuse for crime or as a way to avoid accountability after the fact. McCaghy (1968) has referred to this phenomenon as ''deviance disavowal.'' The deviance disavowal potential of alcohol can account for a drinker's involvement in crime in two ways: individuals may drink or say that they have been drinking as an advance excuse for their conduct, or drinking may be offered as an excuse after the fact.

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