While a great deal of energy has been expended in criminal justice and criminological research on the topic of drugs, there has been relatively little attention paid to the role of alcohol in crime or its impact on the criminal justice system. This is somewhat curious when one considers that alcohol is a strong correlate for both criminal offending (especially violent crime) and criminal victimization. Quite simply, there is impressive empirical evidence for a direct relationship between alcohol and violent criminal behavior. The difficulty, however, is that alcohol is so intertwined with crimes of violence that it has been difficult for researchers to isolate the effects of alcohol from other individual, situational and social factors. For instance, it is not uncommon for both parties to an assault to be drunk, thus making it difficult to conclude that alcohol was the "cause" of the "offender's" (i.e., usually the person who prevails physically) violent behavior. Yet, despite these analytical difficulties, it is evident that alcohol remains deeply implicated in crime and social disorder. The challenge is to untangle the complex relationship between alcohol and socially proscribed behavior. This article is a first step toward understanding the dynamics of alcohol use among those who have engaged in criminal behavior and are known to be at-risk for substance abuse and addiction: arrestees booked into jail in Anchorage.
The article presents a summary of alcohol use information gathered as part of the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) program. (See accompanying article, "Drug Use Trends Among Anchorage Arrestees: 1999-2001.") Because ADAM measures the alcohol use behaviors of only a small segment of those engaged in criminal activity—those who come to the attention of authorities—the data gathered provide only a partial picture of the total alcohol-crime relationship. Nevertheless, even with this limitation, the data collected in ADAM tell us a great deal. Moreover, ADAM data are less limited in their ability to provide reliable information about the raw material of criminal justice: the people who enter the system. For those tasked with apprehending, supervising, sentencing, educating and treating persons brought within the purview of the criminal justice system, the information collected by ADAM researchers is an invaluable resource.
ADAM interviewers ask respondents about several dimensions of their alcohol use:
- If they have ever had five or more drinks of alcohol on the same day. (A "drink" is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of wine, or one ounce of hard liquor.)
- How old they were the first time they had five or more drinks of alcohol on the same day.
- If they have had five or more drinks of alcohol on the same day in the past 12 months.
- The number of times respondents had five or more drinks on the same day, each month, over the past 12 months.
- If they have had five or more drinks of alcohol on the same day in the past 30 days.
- The number of days, in the past 30, they had five or more drinks on the same day.
Questions such as these allow researchers to estimate the extent of alcohol use among the arrestee population ("prevalence") and also measure the degree of alcohol use for individual arrestees ("incidence"). What follows is a brief overview of the results of these questions.
Prevalence and Incidence of Heavy Alcohol Use
Data from the ADAM-Anchorage project show heavy alcohol consumption to be common among Anchorage's adult arrestee population. ADAM-Anchorage program staff interviewed 1,178 out of the 2,155 males booked into Anchorage jails in the eight data collection quarters of 2000 and 2001; of these, 1,161 were asked if they ever had five or more drinks of alcohol on the same day. Ninety percent of male respondents who answered the question (n = 1,045), indicated that they had at least five or more drinks of alcohol on the same day—an indicator of heavy alcohol use—at least once in their lifetime (see Table 1). More than eight of every ten of those asked reported having had five or more drinks of alcohol on the same day within the past twelve months, and seven of every ten stated they had used alcohol at that level within the past 30 days. When the incidence of heavy alcohol use was examined (the frequency of heavy use for individual respondents), in contrast to prevalence (the frequency of heavy use among a population of individuals), the extent of problematic alcohol use was more evident. The average number of days male respondents had five or more drinks on the same day in the past 30 days was eleven. In other words, those who did engage in heavy drinking within 30 days of their incarceration in Anchorage jails did so at a pace of roughly every third day.
Although among female arrestees there was a lower rate of alcohol use, the extent of use was still far-reaching. Slightly more than 82 percent (n = 211) reported that they had consumed five or more drinks on the same day at some time in their life (see Table 1). Sixty-eight percent of women asked told ADAM interviewers that they had consumed five or more drinks of alcohol within the 12 months immediately preceding their current arrest and incarceration—a rate similar to that for male arrestees. And the similarities don't stop there. For those who told interviewers they had engaged in heavy drinking at some point in their life, more than half (55%) reported having five or more drinks of alcohol on the same day within 30 days of their being booked into Anchorage lock-ups (65 % of males responded the same way).
The difference between male and female arrestees lies with the odds of having ever engaged in heavy drinking: males are more likely to report having had five or more drinks of beer, wine or any other type of alcohol on the same day than women. For those individuals who have had five or more drinks of alcohol on the same day, however, the odds are nearly even for male and female arrestees that they will have engaged in that level of alcohol consumption within the past year and within the past month.
Men and women booked into Anchorage jails did differ in terms of the incidence (i.e., individual frequency) and age of onset for their heavy drinking. Females who reported engaging in heavy drinking within a month of their current arrest did so an average of 8 days out of 30, whereas males had five or more drinks of alcohol an average of 11 days out of 30. In addition, male arrestees who reported heavy drinking began, on average, more than a year before their female counterparts (16.4 years vs. 17.7 years).
Arrestees At-Risk for Future Alcohol Abuse and Dependence
ADAM incorporates a 6-item scale for determining if an arrestee is at-risk for alcohol abuse. Interviewers ask respondents: In the past 12 months: a) Have you spent more time drinking than you intended? b) Have you neglected some of your usual responsibilities because of using alcohol? c) Have you wanted to cut down on your drinking? d) Has anyone objected to your use of alcohol? e) Have you frequently found yourself thinking about drinking? f) Have you used alcohol to relieve feelings such as sadness, anger or boredom? A pattern of alcohol use with a positive response to two of these indicators shows risk for alcohol abuse. However, if the indicators "thinking about drinking" and "drinking to relieve emotions" are the two indicators, there is a risk for alcohol dependence. A positive response to three or more indicators shows a risk for alcohol dependence if one of these indicators is either "thinking about drinking" or "drinking to relieve emotions."
Not surprising, given the results discussed above, was the finding that nearly 15 percent of male arrestees who had engaged in heavy drinking at least once in the 12 months immediately preceding their current remand to jail were determined to be at-risk for alcohol abuse. More startling was the discovery that 57 percent of this group were at serious risk for alcohol dependence, not merely abuse. Women booked into Anchorage jail facilities were somewhat less likely to be flagged as at-risk for future abusive alcohol consumption behavior—with 12 percent of those who had five or more drinks of alcohol in the past year. However, female arrestees were at even greater risk for alcohol dependence than their male counterparts. Almost two-thirds (65%) of the women who had drunk five or more servings of alcohol on the same day in the year preceding their arrest were found to be at-risk for alcohol dependence.
This description of alcohol use by Anchorage arrestees makes one thing clear: heavy alcohol use is very common among those arrested and booked into jail. Between 80 and 90 percent of jailed adults in Anchorage report having engaged in heavy drinking at least once, with more than half having done so within 30 days of their present offense. It is also likely that those who drink heavily do so several days per week. In addition, there is better than a 50-50 chance that every other person remanded to jail custody in Anchorage who has engaged in heavy drinking within one year of their present arrest is at-risk to develop a dependence on alcohol, and better than one of every eight individuals booked into custody is at risk for alcohol abuse.
While these findings do not establish a clear causal link between alcohol consumption and criminal behavior, they do reveal the extent to which alcohol pervades the lives of the people caught in the criminal justice net. Simply stated, among those that enter the criminal justice system through jails, problematic alcohol use is rampant. These descriptive data also hint at the social costs of alcohol abuse and dependence for the citizens of Alaska in general, but especially for the community of Anchorage. Beyond the costs associated with maintaining a criminal justice system that is clearly tasked with responding to alcohol-related incidents, there are other yet-to-be-identified costs incurred by communities when so many of those arrested and later released are at-risk for alcohol abuse or dependence.
Brad Myrstol is a research associate with the Justice Center.