Alcohol abuse and criminal offending

Research Brief 17


Alcohol addiction can be a criminogenic risk factor. Contemporary criminology studies show that drug and alcohol abuse is linked to increased contact with the criminal justice system. A Queensland Corrections policy document cites studies indicating that 29% of offenders reported being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol at the time of their most serious offence. Further, alcohol and drug dependency are strongly linked to recidivism. Recent estimates suggest that almost 55% of released offenders go on to reoffend.

The link between substance abuse and crime is not a recent phenomenon. Historically, the criminal justice system often grappled with cases involving alcohol abuse and addiction. Data from the Prosecution Project indicates that defendants attributed a range of offences to alcohol abuse. These included violent offences like murder and manslaughter, sexual offences against both women and children, and non-violent crime like breaking and entering and other property offences.

One such case occurred in the Brisbane Supreme Court in 1936. Walter Patrick Carey, a tailor, faced a charge of breaking and entering a house in early December 1935. A police officer on his beat in Spring Hill had noticed Carey walking down a street carrying a sugar bag. The officer’s suspicions were aroused when Carey, spying the officer, dropped the bag in the doorway of a local shop, and hurried away. He was detained by the officer, and the bag was found to contain women’s clothing, including coats, dresses, and skirts. A Mrs. Campbell later reported the theft of property from her house in Woolloongabba, and the items were linked to the contents of the bag.

Carey admitted to the offence, pleading guilty before Chief Justice Blair during the February sittings of the Brisbane Supreme Court. The Telegraph newspaper reports that Carey tendered a number of written statements for the Judge to consider before sentencing. These included testimonials from previous employers who acknowledged ‘his skill and reliability and honesty as a tradesman’ in his capacity as a tailor. His own statement attributed his current circumstances to his problems with alcohol. He was currently unemployed, having been dismissed from his most recent occupation as a cutter in a Brisbane tailor’s firm due to his drunkenness. Carey reportedly asked his Honour to ‘give him this last chance’, to make some kind of attempt to provide for his approaching old age.

However, the Crown Prosecutor reminded the court of Carey’s long history of reoffending. This ‘very bad record’ included a range of convictions for forgery, uttering false documents, and breaking, entering and stealing offences across both Queensland and New South Wales. According to Carey, drink was the cause of all his trouble. But although the Chief Justice noted Carey’s good discharge after serving in the First World War, he could not ignore Carey’s status as a ‘habitual criminal’ and subsequently sentenced him to three years imprisonment with hard labour.


Police News, 8 March 1884.

Police News, 8 March 1884.


In other cases though, intoxication appeared as a mitigating factor, particularly in relation to violent crimes. In the New South Wales Supreme Court in March 1916, defendant Charles Perrin was on trial for shooting and wounding a police officer in the left hip and abdomen. Perrin was indicted on two charges; wounding with intent to murder, and wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm. He told the court that he was so drunk that he knew nothing about the incident until he awoke in hospital the following day. The jury found him guilty of maliciously wounding, with a strong recommendation to mercy. Justice Cullen subsequently sentenced him to twelve months imprisonment with hard labour, arguably quite a lenient sentence.

Alcohol were involved in many domestic violence cases before the courts. Most of these offences were dealt with in the Police Court or Court of Petty Sessions. Only the most severe charges reached the Supreme Court level. Sometimes, evidence of intoxication was considered suitable grounds for a plea bargain negotiation in these cases. For example, at his committal hearing in 1955, a defendant pleaded not guilty to attempting to strangle his wife. At his trial in the New South Wales Supreme Court, the Crown Prosecutor reportedly accepted his guilty plea to the lesser charge of assault on the grounds that the evidence showed he had been drinking heavily at the time of the offence. Justice McClemens sentenced him to two months imprisonment “to dry out”, ordering the prisoner to keep away from his wife for the next four years.

“Drying out” in prisons or in mental health hospitals was often the only kind of treatment on offer for alcoholic offenders. In the late nineteenth century, judges were among the most vehement supporters for the introduction of special inebriates institutions, frustrated by the number of offenders who would appear before their courts again and again for alcohol-related crimes. In later years judges sometimes ordered a period of abstinence for defendants given suspended sentences or released on good behaviour bonds. After the spread of Alcoholics Anonymous groups in Australia in the mid twentieth century, judges would sometimes order defendants to join such groups; in the nineteenth century, magistrates in the lower courts likewise ordered some offenders to ‘sign the pledge’ of abstinence promoted by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

These conditions were the historical antecedents of contemporary rehabilitation practices. Today, rehabilitation programs commonly involve treatments focusing on substance abuse issues, including group therapies in prison and relapse prevention programs during probation. As data accessed by the Prosecution Project is showing. throughout the twentieth century, agents within the criminal justice system increasingly proposed an association between substance abuse and criminal offending, recommending different remedies that have also shaped prosecution and sentencing.


Author: Lisa Durnian, PhD candidate

To cite this research brief: Lisa Durnian, ‘Alcohol abuse and criminal offending’, The Prosecution Project, Research Brief 17, (1 October 2015, viewed 19 July 2016).