by Lee, 02/05/2014, 8:53 PM

I went on a short rant about this on Twitter recently, but I wanted to expand on it more here. Last week, Keith Humphrey’s at The Reality-Based Community wrote a post entitled “The Link Between Overcrowded Prisons and a Certain Drug“, where he claimed that alcohol is largely responsible for our prison overcrowding problems, rather than the war on (certain) drugs.

That’s simply not correct, and it’s very easy to debunk. If the effects of alcohol use were responsible for the criminal behavior that swells our prison ranks, you’d see at least some correlation between alcohol use and prison populations among the different countries of the world. But you don’t. It’s not even close. According to this World Health Organization report from 2011, these are the countries that lead the world in alcohol consumption (total in liters per capita per year):

1. Moldova (18.22)
2. Czech Republic (16.45)
3. Hungary (16.27)
4. Russia (15.76)
5. Ukraine (15.6)
6. Estonia (15.57)
7. Andorra (15.48)
8. Romania (15.30)
9. Belarus (15.13)
10. Croatia (15.11)
11. South Korea (14.8)
12. Portugal (14.55)
13. Ireland (14.41)
14. France (13.66)
15. UK (13.37)

The United States consumes only 9.44 liters per capita per year, far behind these other nations. Yet we imprison a whopping 716 out of every 100,000 people. How does that compare to those countries that consume more alcohol? Here’s the same figure for each of the countries listed above:

1. Moldova (185)
2. Czech Republic (154)
3. Hungary (173)
4. Russia (484)
5. Ukraine (311)
6. Estonia (245)
7. Andorra (49)
8. Romania (156)
9. Belarus (335)
10. Croatia (115)
11. South Korea (92)
12. Portugal (134)
13. Ireland (94)
14. France (101)
15. UK (148*)

* Just England and Wales, Scotland is 146 and Northern Ireland is 99

It’s not even close. So is this because all of those other countries don’t put people in jail for homicide, rape, simple assault, aggravated assault and robbery…the types of crimes that Humphries called out as being tied to alcohol use? Of course not. Is it because Americans are somehow more predisposed to commit crimes when drunk? That’s pretty far-fetched as well. One potential difference comes from drunk driving laws, but both Australia and Canada drink more than us, have a similarly car-dependent culture, and still lock up far fewer people than we do.

As much as Humphries and his colleagues seem eager to obscure this fact, it’s the overaggressive way that America wages its war on drugs that leaves us with such a huge amount of people behind bars. Looking solely at the number of people locked up for marijuana offenses and not finding very many is a terrible way to draw conclusions about its impact.

The way that our drug war inflates our prison population is more complicated than just sending people to jail for pot. It’s about the effect that a pot arrest can have for a person down the road. In far too many cases, a pot arrest early in life becomes a wall against future opportunity for many people (mostly minorities). A felony drug conviction (often through a plea deal that allows the person to avoid going to prison initially) makes future educational endeavors and various types of employment nearly impossible. The end result is that significant numbers of people in that situation find that becoming a career criminal is their only path towards survival.

So to really understand the impact of the war on pot, you can’t just look at what percentage of the people in our prison system are there because of a pot conviction. You have to look at what percentage of the people in our prison system had their first contact with the criminal justice system because of a pot arrest. Mix that with massively punitive mandatory minimums for various drug offenses, and you have the recipe for prisons bursting at the seams with people who largely end up there by design.

None of this is to say that the violence and criminality resulting from alcohol isn’t a problem. It certainly is, but it’s very easy to look at the heaviest drinking countries in the world and see that it’s not the reason we have 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of its people.

2 Responses to “Alcohol and Prison Populations”

1. ekim spews:

It certainly is, but it’s very easy to look at the heaviest drinking countries in the world and see that it’s not the reason we have 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of its people.

The usual reason our country does something insane like this is because someone is making their fortune fucking over other people.

2. Roger Rabbit spews:

I’ll bet there’s a correlation between civilian access to guns and crime rates.