In recent months, there has been widespread speculation about the dramatic drop in violent crime over the last 30 years. Among the explanations tossed around are the aging population, abortion, better law enforcement and forensics technology, and ‘Three Strikes’ and other sentencing laws that have filled the prisons.
But Professor Robert Nash Parker has a far simpler explanation: Blame it on the alcohol.
“The reason why our crime rate is down over 30 years is that 1982 was the peak of [alcohol] consumption in the U.S. over our recent history,” Parker said.
The University of California, Riverside Sociology professor and the co-director of the school’s Robert Presley Center for Crime and Justice Studies, Parker has spent much of his career studying the link between violent crime and various forces in society.
And one force stands out above all the others, Parker said — and not just in our recent history. Parker said he has data for the U.S. going back to the 1930s, for California going back to the 1960s, and also for many other countries. Across the board, he said, a rise of alcohol consumption is followed by a rise in violence, and a drop is followed by a drop. The U.S. data since Prohibition shows six matching jumps, he said.
Meanwhile, two periods where fewer adults drank and those who did drank less, the late 1930s and the late 1950s, were relatively peaceful times when it came to interpersonal violence. The murder rate in 1960 was about half that of the peak years of 1980 to 1982, when drinking also jumped.
“If you ask a police officer who has had experience on the streets, he’ll tell you alcohol is the biggest contributor to violence he has experienced,” Parker said. “It really is what causes a lot of the violence society deals with. Everybody is concerned about drugs, but drugs-users don’t commit violence. Drug dealers do, but not drug users. And drinkers do.”
Beau Phillips, an outside spokesman for the Beer Institute, a Washington-based industry lobbyist, said most of Parker’s publications on the topic were from 12 or more years ago, and that Parker’s ideas have gotten little traction from lawmakers.
“Where’s the news hook I am missing here?” Phillips asked.
As mind-altering drugs go, Parker said, alcohol has a unique relationship to violence, he said. Beyond just impairing judgment, it makes it hard for intoxicated people to properly interpret the people and events around them. It also shortens people’s “time horizon,” Parker said: “Normally, you might think ‘I’ll get arrested, I’ll lose my job, my wife will divorce me, I’ll lose my kids.’ All you’re thinking is, I want to shut that bastard up and I’m going get him.”
Many people think the use of drugs like crack cocaine and methamphetamine are associated with violence as well, Parker noted, but statistically, these hardly make a blip. In the majority of cases where people on these drugs committed violence, he said, the perpetrators were also drinking.
Then there’s the matter of prevalence. Even if crack drove people to violence as much as some people think it does, less than 2 percent of the U.S. adult population has ever tried crack, let alone use it regularly. While the effects of these drugs are devastating on the people who actually use them, they don’t add up to a public health problem on a large scale.
Similarly, Parker scoffs at the idea that three strikes laws in California or anywhere else have had anything to do with the drop in violence. They’re a trailing indicator – meaning that violence rates were already dropping significantly at the time when these laws went into effect. Alcohol, he said, has a decades-long status as a leading indicator of violence rates.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of American adults drink alcohol. This group includes Parker, who said he drinks moderately at social occasions, something he said has led to some teasing from friends and colleagues. But what this means is that a huge percentage of the population has the potential to drink too much on occasion and get out of control.
Parker also said he doesn’t want to bring back Prohibition — though he adds that that era is widely misunderstood. In the public consciousness, it’s a time of high levels of violence, with gangsters blowing each other away with Tommy guns in a bid to control bootlegging turf. It’s also thought of as a time when hundreds of people died, went blind or had other health problems related to drinking bathtub gin and underground products adulterated with rubbing alcohol and turpentine.
All of which is true — but overall rates of violence and alcohol-related diseases plummeted. If all the alcohol in the world disappeared overnight, Parker estimates, the murder rate would drop 10 percent immediately.
We even have a recent example, he said. In the late 1990s, the city of Barrow, Alaska, banned and unbanned alcohol sales three times. As an isolated community of 4,600, mainly accessible by boat and plane, a ban actually meant something. When the ban went into effect, he said, hospital admissions for assault dropped 90 percent. When it was voted out, the city quickly had three murders, the first in years.
Parker wants to see the existing state and local control over alcohol used to better effect. He’d like to limit the number of liquor stores and licenses, particularly in poorer areas and in times when violent crime rates are rising.
He’d also like to see more places banning what he said is the king of violent drinks: the 40 oz. bottle of chilled malt liquor. They’re cheap, convenient and deliver twice the alcohol of regular beer.
“People are opening them before they get out the door,” Parker said. “You ingest a whole lot of alcohol quickly, and suddenly the parking lot becomes a battleground.”
Warm malt liquor needs to be taken home and refrigerated, while most people prefer to drink their hard liquor with ice and mixers – all steps that make it less likely that someone will quickly end up intoxicated in public.
Meanwhile, he wants to decriminalize—but not legalize marijuana—and deescalate the drug war in favor of treatment.
So who’s right? We may soon get to find out. After three decades that mostly saw drops or stagnation in alcohol consumption, the amount of alcohol Americans down has recently gone up again.