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Alcohol and crime

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By Brent Schanding

In this second of a three-part series leading up to an Oct. 8 public forum on the alcohol referendum, the Spencer Magnet examines the perceived impacts of countywide alcohol sales on crime. A subsequent articles will focus on the perceived moral consequences associated with the issue.

In April, a 19-year-old was found dead in his vehicle after reportedly attending a prom party in southern Spencer County. A toxicology report confirmed the teen died from alcohol poisoning. If voters approve the sale of alcohol here in an Oct. 20 special election, some worry liquor and beer retailers will locate next to schools–giving teens easier access to the substance.  Others worry a wet vote will bring more alcohol-related incidents to the county.

Earlier this year, Spencer County Sheriff Steve Coulter told the Magnet that alcohol sales could have a “tremendous impact” on crime.

“Naturally, we would have more DUIs, but we would also have more court time, more overtime for deputies, more accidents, more teenaged drinking,” Coulter said. “I don’t think there’s going to be enough revenue to cover those things.”

But despite these perceived fears, some evidence actually suggests dry counties differ little from wet ones on a number of crime indicators.

Neither are immune to alcohol-related traffic accidents-and wet counties often report fewer alcohol-related fatalities than prohibition precincts, according to a Spencer Magnet analysis of reports from the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other data-collecting agencies.

Counties that restrict alcohol also experience nearly the same levels of alcohol-related violence as wet ones, the analysis further found.

A CLOSER LOOK

According to data from the NHTSA, dry counties in Texas had over three and one-half times the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities than completely wet counties there. The agency––which conducted a study comparing statistics in Texas’ wet and dry counties over the past five years––found the data to be consistent with earlier research conducted in Kentucky.

About 39,000 alcohol-related traffic accidents were compared in Kentucky’s wet and dry counties. A higher proportion of residents in dry counties were found to be involved in such crashes, the study found. That’s likely because residents in dry counties must drive farther to consume alcohol––increasing their exposure to impaired driving. 

Texas, which has a significant number of dry counties, topped the nation for alcohol-related traffic accidents, the study showed, partly because it has more motorists driving more miles than almost any other state.

Other states containing a number of dry counties were shown to have high numbers of alcohol-related traffic accidents per capita. California, the nation’s most populated state, had significantly less traffic incidents relating to alcohol, the study found. California has no dry counties.

An analysis conducted by the Spencer Magnet earlier this year found 25 people were convicted of driving while under the influence of drugs/alcohol in the first four months of this year.

Taylorsville Police Chief Toby Lewis told the Magnet, earlier this year the department didn’t have the resources to cope with more alcohol-related problems.

“We’re hoping we don’t see an increase (in DUIs)” if the county ultimately votes to approve alcohol sales, Lewis said.

However, Lewis, a former sergeant for the Shelbyville Police Department, said that agency didn’t notice an increase in alcohol-related crimes when the city began selling alcohol.

WHAT ABOUT OTHER CRIME?

Nevertheless, statistics do seem to indicate a connection between alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Studies of domestic violence often document high rates of alcohol consumption. They link alcohol to impaired judgment, reduced inhibitions and increased aggression. Alcoholism and child abuse, including incest, also seems connected, according to reports published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The Spencer Magnet does not usually report on cases involving alleged domestic abuse because of privacy issues, but many of the county’s files involving assaults or other forms of battery cite alcohol as a factor.

Researchers with the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts were not able to provide the Spencer Magnet with data concerning alcohol-related cases in Spencer County by press time. The U.S. Department of Justice Report on Alcohol and Crime found that alcohol abuse was a factor in 40 percent of violent crimes committed in the U.S.

While most agree there would be less crime if alcohol were completely banned, residents here still have easy access to alcohol from surrounding wet counties.

That’s why many who oppose the dangerous side-effects of alcohol don’t necessarily oppose the sale of the substance.

Lindsey D’lugos, with the Kentucky Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, said the organization doesn’t advocate against petitions to allow the sale of alcohol in dry counties. Even though many members of MADD have lost children because of drunk driving, the organization doesn’t condemn the sale of alcohol to those of legal drinking age. Research shows there’s no difference in crash rates in wet or dry counties, she said.

“We just don’t want underage folks to get a hold of it,” D’lugos said.

Drunk driving incidents have declined dramatically by underage drivers since 1973, according to the NHTSA, when it was over six times higher than today.

Texting while driving may be more dangerous than drinking and driving, other studies show.

Because there is conflicting data about alcohol-related crime the Spencer Magnet will host a public forum Oct. 8 to address the issue further. Law enforcement officers from the Spencer County Sheriff’s Office and the Kentucky State Police are expected to answer questions and provide additional data at that time.

Brent Schanding can be reached at bschanding@lcni.com.