Drugs and Crime

July 16, 2009 by Emily Battaglia 

Drug and alcohol abuse are strongly linked to crime. Substance abuse has a dual effect of removing an individual’s healthy inhibitions (awareness and/or regard for correct social behaviors) and creating an urgent need to raise significant sums of money to buy more of the user’s drug of choice. The fact that drug abuse often leads to risky and even illegal behavior, with serious long-term consequences, is another reason that substance abuse problems should be addressed as soon as possible with proper treatment and rehabilitation.

A significant proportion of state and federal prisoners report committing crimes for drug money and/or committing crimes while under the influence of drugs. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 17 percent of state prisoners and 18 percent of federal inmates reported committing their crimes to get money for drugs.

In the 2004 Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, one in three state prisoners and one in four federal prisoners reported committing their most recent offense while under the influence of drugs. The highest incidence of drug use among state prisoners was drug offenders (44 percent) and property offenders (39 percent). Among federal prisoners, drug offenders (32 percent) and violent offenders (24 percent) were the most likely to report using drugs at the time of their crimes.

According to data from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), part of the DOJ, the number of people who are under the influence while committing crimes may be even higher than offenders report. According to NIJ data, more than half of all people arrested in the United States each year test positive for illegal drugs. In addition, NIJ data indicate that drug and alcohol abuse leads to increased rates of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual violence.

Over one in four victims of violent crime report being violated by someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol. According to the DOJ’s 2005 National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), in 2005, there were 5.2 million violent victimizations of residents age 12 or older. As part of the survey, victims were asked to describe whether they believe that the offender was drinking or using drugs at the time of the crime. Approximately 27% of the victims of violence reported that the offender was using drugs or alcohol.

A large percentage of offenders who are dependent on drugs and/or alcohol also have mental health problems. For example, according to the DOJ, in 2005, 74 percent of state prisoners who had a mental health problem were dependent on or abused alcohol or drugs, versus 56 percent of prisoners who did not have a mental health problem. In addition, over one-third of state prisoners with a mental health problem reported using drugs at the time of their offense, and one in four prisoners without a mental health problem reported using drugs at the time of their crime.

The added complexity of mental health issues makes appropriate treatment for drug offenders even more important. Co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues are self-perpetuating, meaning treatment for one condition cannot be successful if the other goes unchecked.

NIJ believes drug use is intimately related to crime for several important reasons. Namely, that drug users are more likely than nonusers to commit crimes; arrestees and inmates are often under the influence of drugs at the time they commit their offenses; and drug trafficking and distribution generate violence.


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