Broken Bottles: Alcohol, Disorder, and Crime

John J. DiIulio, Jr.
Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society University of Pennsylvania
John J. DiIulio, Jr. Former Brookings Expert, Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society - University of Pennsylvania

March 1, 1996

Over the past quarter-century, Americans have spent billions of dollars to wage a war on drugs as part of a broader effort to fight crime and community breakdown, especially in the inner city. The particular focus on illicit drugs, however, has kept the spotlight off a more familiar, yet perhaps more dangerous, psychoactive drug — alcohol. The tendency to leave liquor out of the nation’s crime equation is understandable. After all, adult liquor sales are legal, most Americans drink in moderation, and, whatever the social costs of alcohol abuse, no one who wishes to be taken seriously is about to call for a return to prohibition. Policymakers concerned about the health of the nation’s inner cities, however, must not ignore the links between alcohol and crime. Although the relationships are complex, the high concentration of liquor stores in the inner cities, the ready availability of beer and hard liquor, and the high incidence of alcohol abuse are deeply implicated in the troubled homes, disorderly neighborhoods, and dangerous streets there.

This insight comes as no news to the struggling, law-abiding residents who live in these neighborhoods. They beg local police and other public authorities to “do something” about the corner-to-corner proliferation of liquor outlets. They spray paint over liquor billboards. They try without success to get zoning laws changed to make it as tough to open retail liquor stores in their neighborhoods as it generally is to open them in rich, white, suburban neighborhoods.

It is time for the rest of us, policymakers and citizens alike, to pay attention.

A Multiplier of Crime

Although scientific research on alcohol-related crime and other social ills has been crowded out by studies of the social costs and consequences of drug abuse, researchers are beginning to get a handle on the epidemiology of alcohol-related crime. Perhaps the single best summary of the evidence is this, by Jeffrey Fagan: “Alcohol use has been associated with assaultive and sex-related crimes, serious youth crime, family violence toward both spouses and children, being both a homicide victim and a perpetrator, and persistent aggression as an adult. Alcohol ‘problems’ occur disproportionately among both juveniles and adults who report violent behaviors.”

Most crime, of course, is not related to drinking, and most drinking never results in crime. But some people are far more prone to crime and violence when they are drinking or drunk than when they are clean and sober. Analysts are careful to stress that “conceptions of how drinking affects social behavior are . . . shaped more by powerful cultural, economic, and political forces than by scientific evidence regarding the direct effects of alcohol.” But exactly the same sorts of cautions apply to the links between drug abuse and crime. The evidence that “drug abuse causes crime” is of the same kind and quality as the evidence that “alcohol abuse causes crime” — namely, plentiful but inferential, generally persuasive but not scientifically precise.

What the evidence suggests is that alcohol, like drugs, acts as a multiplier of crime. Aggressive behavior or criminality often occurs before involvement with drugs or alcohol, but the onset of use increases aggressive or criminal behavior. If anything, alcohol abuse probably drives crime and other social problems more than drug abuse does, simply because the use of alcohol is so widespread.

Liquor, Disorder, and Crime

Neighborhood disorder takes many forms — public drinking, prostitution, catcalling, aggressive panhandling, rowdy teenagers, battling spouses, graffiti, vandalism, abandoned buildings, trash-filled lots, alleys strewn with bottles and garbage. But no social disorder is at once so disruptive in its own right and so conducive of other disorders and crime as public drinking. In a classic 1990 study of community breakdown in American cities by William Skogan, public drinking was ranked first among the disorders identified by residents across 40 neighborhoods.

The statistics are striking. Sixty percent of convicted homicide offenders drank just before committing the offense. Sixty-three percent of adults jailed for homicide had been drinking before the offense. Sixty percent of prison inmates drank heavily just before committing the violent crime for which they were incarcerated. The relationship between poverty and homicide is stronger in neighborhoods with higher rates of alcohol consumption than in those with average or below-average rates. Numerous studies report a strong association between sexual violence and alcohol, finding that “anywhere between 30 and 90 percent of convicted rapists are drunk at the time of offense.” Juveniles, especially young men, who drink to the point of drunkenness are more likely than those who do not drink to get into fights, get arrested, commit violent crimes, and recidivate later in life. Alcohol-dependent male factory workers are more than three times as likely to physically abuse their wives than are otherwise comparable, non-alcohol-dependent counterparts.

The high incidence of drinking among convicted criminals does not necessarily prove that drinking stimulates crime; it may be nearer to being evidence that criminals who drink are more likely to get caught and convicted than those who do not. But it is important not to discount or deny the probable, and in some cases patently obvious, connections between liquor, disorder, and crime.

Alcohol in the Inner City

The map shown in figure 1 illustrates the relationship between liquor and crime in Milwaukee in 1993. The map categorizes each city tract according to its crime rate; the darker the shading, the higher the crime rate. Each dot represents a liquor outlet. If one knew nothing about the city or what the shaded areas or dots represent and simply drew circles around the places where the dots are clustered, Milwaukee’s poor, minority, high-crime, inner-city neighborhoods would be enclosed in those circles. And the same pattern is true for other inner-city communities all across the country.

Numerous first-rate studies have found close links between the geographic density of alcohol outlets and consumption (and alcohol problem) rates. Without leaping to the further conclusion that if inner-city neighborhoods had fewer liquor outlets and less alcohol consumption, they would also have less crime, policymakers who care about reducing community breakdown and crime in the inner city should nevertheless seriously consider restricting alcohol availability and reducing the density of liquor stores.

The practical question is how best to do so. The main finding of the scientific research literature is that more strongly enforcing liquor law regulations can reduce alcohol availability and consumption, as well as alcohol-related problems, including violent crime, among at-risk youth and adults.

Most states do not have strong liquor-law regulations and procedures. Even states that have them on the books tend to underfund the agencies responsible for enforcing them. Naturally, anemic funding often leads to inadequate enforcement, which opens up the possibility of socially harmful concentrations of liquor outlets and other regulatory failures that can lead to a hornet’s nest of alcohol-related social problems.

Developing and enforcing rigorous liquor laws and regulations that might cut crime and alcohol-related problems in poor, minority, high-crime inner-city neighborhoods has not been a high priority for most states. To put it bluntly, America’s liquor-control regime is structured without any apparent regard for the connection between alcohol availability, consumption, crime, and other social problems — and is calculated to give the states almost zero capacity to regulate and directly enforce liquor laws. A study of ABC offices and investigators in California, for example, found that investigators were “less concerned with public health and welfare than with the rights of applicants.” The study concluded that selling alcohol in California “is treated more as a right than a privilege.”

In their new book, Alcohol and Homicide, R. N. Nash and L. A. Rebhun observe, rightly, that the high concentration of liquor outlets in inner-city neighborhoods reflects “the relative power of alcohol producers and wholesalers who supply liquor outlets, banks who loan money to store owners, and state regulators whose activities are more oriented toward the interests of alcohol industry lobbying groups than the regulation of that industry and the relative powerlessness of the poor and unemployed individuals and groups who live in greater concentration in these areas of high outlet density.”

Broken Bottles

Middle-class Americans would not tolerate for one second laws that permitted an inner-city level concentration of liquor stores in and around the places where they and their loved ones live, work, shop, go to school, or play. It makes no sense to insist that it is all merely a matter of free markets, as if liquor stores simply go where the people want what they sell and sell to whomever they want. Nor can one hide behind a fog of empirical uncertainties about the connections between liquor, disorder, and crime. In the end, academic statistical exercises are no substitute for live ethnographic realities. A 1993 feature in U.S. News and World Report reported on that reality from the perspective of a typical inner-city child named John. “To John, Tom’s Liquor is a short walk from his house, school and the storefront church in the same shopping strip. A slew of transactions take John to Tom’s. He tags along with his mom when she goes to cash her welfare checks free of charge. With no supermarket nearby, John goes to Tom’s when he wants a candy bar. Even when his mother takes him to the adjoining neighborhoods, John rarely sees a bank or supermarket. Many neighborhood traits convey disorder, but unchecked public drinking is a particularly potent affirmation that ‘no one cares.’ That is the message John gains by observing Tom’s Liquor, where winos and crack addicts congregate at night in the parking lot.”

Some years ago James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling offered a by-now almost universally accepted “broken windows” thesis —

Preserving Social Capital

States and cities should begin immediately to experiment with policies aimed at cutting crime by curbing alcohol availability and consumption. The place to start is in high-crime neighborhoods where the density of liquor outlets exceeds citywide averages. The theory behind this experiment should be guided by the large and methodologically sophisticated body of research that documents that in inner-city neighborhoods, the relationship between poverty on the one side and crime and disorder on the other is mediated by community norms and the extent of citizens’ attachments to traditional institutions like home, school, and church.

As a rule, the stronger are community norms and traditional institutional attachments, the weaker the link between poverty and crime and the lower the chances that poor children will become deviant, delinquent, or predatory. Studies have shown that religious affiliation fosters less drinking. Indeed, one major study finds that even after controlling for all relevant individual characteristics such as race, gender, education, parental education, family structure, and religious involvement, young people whose neighbors attend church are more likely to find a job, less likely to use drugs, and less likely to be involved in criminal activities whether or not they themselves attend church or have other attachments to traditional institutions.

But in poor neighborhoods where alcohol is readily available and liquor outlets dot every intersection, informal and indirect social controls on deviant, delinquent, and criminal behavior are diluted. Where broken bottles fill the gutters, social capital goes down the drain. Whether or not they themselves drink to excess, hang out at bars, or engage directly in related behaviors, it is probable that poor, inner-city youths who grow up in places where drinking is common and liquor outlets are everywhere are more likely than otherwise comparable youths to have diminished life prospects that include joblessness, substance abuse, and serious trouble with the law.

At least three specific policy experiments should be considered as means of deepening our understanding of the alcohol-disorder-crime nexus. First, conduct systematic empirical research on alcohol availability and crime. Develop a rich database that includes detailed information about the precise degrees of spatial overlap between liquor outlets, the incidence of communal disorders, rates of criminal activity, and the frequency of police response. Building such data sets would require the concerted efforts and cooperation of many different state and local agencies, including police departments and social service agencies.

Second, impose stricter zoning ordinances for liquor stores. New zoning laws would increase the distances between liquor stores, reduce the number of bars and liquor stores in the city, and ban the sale of malt liquor to go.

Third, limit alcoholic beverage advertising. Few systematic, scientifically rigorous studies have documented the relationship between alcohol ads and the incidence of excessive drinking, disorder, crime, and related social problems. But the alcohol industry seems to believe that these ads make a positive difference to their sales. Indeed, the industry seems perfectly well aware of the relationship between alcohol, disorder, and crime — and in some infamous cases has been quick to exploit it for commercial gain. In the early 1990s, for example, one of the billboarded spokesmen for St. Ides malt liquor was Ice Cube, a “gangsta rapper” whose hits feature lyrics such as “Pay respect to the black fist or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp.”

Religious leaders in black communities often paint over offensive billboards. City officials should follow their lead by enforcing zoning limitations on billboard alcohol advertising, banning such ads from the horizons of schools, churches, and public housing centers.

One policy experiment that should be avoided at all costs is lowering the legal drinking age. The drinking-disorder-crime nexus seems strongly age-specific. Most violent crime is committed by young males. Drinking in males normally begins around adolescence and rises until the late teens or mid-twenties. Research suggests that the relationship between drinking and serious crime is strongest before young men reach age 31.

In a word, states should refuse to enact any measure that would increase alcohol consumption and particularly consumption among young people. Unless one simply refuses to accept the overwhelming weight of the evidence on the relationship between drinking, disorder, and crime, one must believe that reducing the minimum drinking age or any other measure that would increase, rather than further limit, the availability of alcohol would have socially undesirable, even disastrous, consequences — most especially in America’s inner-city neighborhoods.