With the onset of summer, many American cities are bracing for another wave of violent crime. Summer parties, in particular, are a potent mix of high temperatures, young people, little surveillance—and alcohol, a major driver of crime.
Drinking is a bigger source of crime than we give it credit for. Data from California and Oregon indicate that those just over the legal drinking age are significantly more likely than those just under both to drink and to commit crimes, especially those crimes involving alcohol. Raising alcohol taxes reduces crime, as does adding extra innings to baseball games, giving fans more time to sober up. In jurisdictions from Kansas to Brazil, restricting alcohol access reduced crime, while making alcohol easier to get increased crime.
Yet policymakers routinely overlook alcohol’s crime-causing effects, instead slashing regulations and relaxing restrictions on public intoxication. As we argue in a new Manhattan Institute brief, this is a mistake. As crime continues to surge, we should see alcohol control as a smart, simple and effective means to keep violence down this summer.
We don’t mean going back to Prohibition—we’re not buzzkills. Many Americans enjoy an occasional drink without turning into criminals, and are happy with that arrangement.
But most alcohol problems are driven by a small number of problematic drinkers and drinking establishments. The heaviest 10 percent of drinkers, for instance, make up over half of all alcohol consumption, and 10 percent of households make 80 percent of alcohol purchases. These people likely drive the dramatic costs of alcohol-involved crime, which we estimate as at least $85 billion in 2020 alone.
Because of this concentration of problematic alcohol use, we can limit its social costs without impinging on most people’s liberty. Smart policy can target the most problematic drinkers and distributors, while leaving law-abiding citizens alone.
Local governments could give neighborhoods more tools to fight back against irresponsible alcohol use, targeting problematic bars or stores on a case-by-case basis. In Chicago, for instance, dozens of electoral precincts have passed resolutions forbidding the sale of alcohol in their borders—often as a way to fight against irresponsible bars and taverns that become centers of antisocial behavior.
Other stand-alone regulations can also reduce problematic alcohol access. Research supports the idea that restrictions on hours that stores can open reduce violence—especially during late nights or on weekends, when alcohol-fueled crimes are especially common.
Another possibility is to make alcohol cost more. The federal alcohol tax, for instance, was several times higher in real terms only a few decades ago. Currently, it’s at most $13.50 per proof gallon—about 15 cents for a shot. If we had let it rise with inflation since it was set in 1991, it would be $28.46—a dramatic difference.
That doesn’t mean taxing most people substantially more. Even a severalfold increase in the alcohol tax would scarcely affect the budgets of responsible occasional drinkers, as research shows that the burden of alcohol taxes is borne overwhelmingly by heavy-drinking households. Increased revenues could be devoted to reducing income, corporate or other taxes, saving almost everyone money and reducing the government’s burden on productive activity.
New criminal justice policies have also proved effective at reducing problematic alcohol consumption. For example, 24/7 Sobriety, a program first adopted by many counties in South Dakota as punishment for DUIs and some other alcohol-related offenses, requires enrolled probationers and parolees to take daily breathalyzer tests, with an automatic penalty of a night in jail for a failed or missed test.
Counties that adopted the program saw not only massive decreases in drunk driving but also noticeable decreases in other alcohol-fueled crimes such as domestic violence, even though most program participants were not in the program for violent crimes.
There’s also a case to be made for stricter drunk driving laws. So-called zero-tolerance laws, which require license revocation for those who drink underage and drive, reduced other kinds of crime. When Utah recently lowered its DUI blood alcohol content limit to 0.05, motor vehicle fatalities and arrests fell, even as Utahns drove more miles.
Lastly, alcohol-related arrests are at historic lows, even as Americans drink more today than at any time since 1990. There’s no reason to round up every publicly intoxicated person, but as alcohol consumption is often antecedent to crime, arresting the intoxicated is an efficient form of preventive policing. So, too, is more harshly punishing liquor stores that sell to minors—a group at disproportionate risk of criminal offending.
Americans like to drink. But sometimes that drinking gets out of hand, in ways that hurt other people or whole communities. Smart policymakers should understand that we can limit the most harmful effects of alcohol, on crime and otherwise, without putting too much of a burden on normal drinkers. In so doing, we can make our neighborhoods safer—something we could all use more of right now.
Connor Harris and Charles Fain Lehman are fellows at the Manhattan Institute and coauthors of the recent report Fixing Drinking Problems: Evidence and Strategies for Alcohol Control as Crime Control.
The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.