What's the link between alcohol and violent crime?

Published: 18th Sep 2013

This article has been updated with additional information. Please see below.

Regular readers of the news won't be strangers to claims about the cost of alcohol to the UK economy. Regular readers of Full Fact will also know estimates involving big numbers tend to be based on stretched assumptions, often including factors such as the emotional costs of alcohol abuse.

This morning we were greeted with a more sober perspective. On the back of reports that the Association of Chief Police Officers backs so-called 'drunk tanks' to house drunk and disorderly people overnight (for a charge), ACPO claimed that:

"Drink-fuelled anti-social behaviour in our pubs, clubs and on our streets is just part of the problem. Nearly 50 per cent of all violent crime is alcohol related. Offenders are thought to be under the influence of alcohol in nearly half of all incidents of domestic abuse and alcohol plays a part in 25 to 33 per cent of known child abuse cases."

It's a lot of claims to take in at once, but ACPO helpfully provides the source to each of its claims in its press release, meaning anyone can follow the numbers.

'Half of violent crime is alcohol related'

Yes, at least according to the victims. Police recorded crime figures don't distinguish between offences have involved alcohol and those that don't (except drink driving), so instead this is picked up by the Crime Survey for England and Wales

The Survey asks victims of wounding, robbery and assault with or without injury whether they believed the offender(s) were under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In 2011/12, 47% of all these types of offence were linked to alcohol by the victim. It's been roughly the same proportion for the past decade.

For sexual assaults, 40% of those who'd experienced one of these crimes since the age of 16 thought the offender had been under the influence of alcohol. Meanwhile, a third of victims of sexual assault reported that they themselves were under the influence of alcoholat the time of the offence. 

We can't rely entirely on these latter figures since sexual assaults tend to be under-reported. The Crime Survey tries to account for this by giving the victims a self-completion module on intimate violence.

'Offenders are thought to be under the influence of alcohol in nearly half of all incidents of domestic abuse'

As we've pointed out before, domestic abuse and domestic violence aren't the same thing. Domestic violence relates specifically to physical assaults by a partner, ex-partner, relative or household member. Domestic abuse includes this, but adds in emotional and financial abuse, as well as threats.

Crime Survey figures refer to all types of domestic abuse and victims believe that alcohol is involved in 39% of cases - 'nearly half' at a stretch. ACPO however references another source - a cross-departmental government alcohol strategy from 2007.

The only reference to domestic violence or abuse here is from yet another paper - a Home Office study from a decade ago looking at case files of male domestic violence offenders. It found that alcohol use was a feature in 62% of the offences examined.

It also found that almost half of the offenders were alcohol dependent, although this isn't actually the same thing - alcohol dependence doesn't necessarily mean offenders are under the influence of alcohol when incidents happen. In fact the 62% figure for alcohol use as a 'feature' in incidents is more indicative of its prevalence in domestic violence cases.

Alcohol plays a part in 25-33% of known child abuse cases

While ACPO uses the charity Alcohol Concern as its source for this figure, the actual reference seems to originate in a 2001 report: 'Alcohol problems and the family — from stigma to solution', involving the Alcohol Recovery Project and the NSPCC.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to find an online copy of the report, but we're in touch with the NSPCC about tracking down a copy, and will update when we know more. At this stage, all we can say is that the stats are quite dated, having been produced over a decade ago.

Update (19 September)

We've been able to access the NSPCC's Library and traced the source of the figures. The 2001 report isn't actually the original source of the claim, as it in turn cites a 1984 publication: 'Trends in Child Abuse 1977-1982' [citation]. The study analysed five years' worth of cases recorded on child abuse registers maintained by the NSPCC's special units, which are said to cover 10% of the child population of England and Wales. 

While it referenced that "heavy drinking was a factor in 25% of known child abuse cases, and that 20-30% of parents who physically abuse their children are heavy drinkers", there was no reference to the 33% figure. Further, 20.5% of cases involved "heavy drinking" as a so-called 'stress factor'.

Figures from the 1970s and 80s are too dated to tell us much. However, the NSPCC reported more recently (2008/09) that about 21% of callers to ChildLine were counselled with concerns about their parents' alcohol misuse.

We've asked the NSPCC if there's more recent data in this area..

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