Alcohol and Crime: The Story Isn’t Quite So Simple


The chart below comes from Wonkblog. It’s from a study of crime in Oregon, and shows that at age 21—the legal drinking age in Oregon—crime spikes considerably:

One striking chart shows how alcohol can turn people into criminals

As soon as people turned 21, their likelihood of criminality spiked considerably….The number of charges filed against 21-year-olds was similar to the number for 19-year-olds. In other words, from a criminal-justice standpoint, turning 21 is akin to turning back the clock to your late teens.

The mechanism by which this works is fairly obvious — access to alcohol increases dramatically at age 21. That brings more intoxication, and with it more aggressive, belligerent and criminally stupid behavior.

Sometimes, though, one striking chart isn’t enough. Sometimes you really need to see a whole bunch of them. I apologize for the size and readability of this, but I think it’s best if I show you everything, instead of just picking and choosing. Here’s the complete set of charts from the Oregon study:

Virtually the entire effect is driven not by “more aggressive, belligerent and criminally stupid behavior” in general—violent crime shows no effect at all—but specifically by alcohol-related offenses: DUI/reckless driving, providing alcohol to minors, public disorder, and so forth. The authors also suggest there might be some small effect on assault, trespass, marijuana, and cocaine. But if you take a look at those charts without pre-assuming a change at age 21, you see a very vague scatterplot that doesn’t really suggest anything special at that age.

Bottom line: Legal access to alcohol certainly increases alcohol use, and therefore increases the rate of drunk driving, alcohol-induced public disorder, and providing alcohol to minors. You hardly need a study to tell you that. But on all other kinds of crime? It seems to have barely any effect at all.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.