Home > Investigating the links between substance misuse and crime among young offenders.

Connolly, Johnny (2014) Investigating the links between substance misuse and crime among young offenders. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 49, Spring 2014, pp. 16-17.

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A better understanding of the nature of the connection between drug use and offending has implications for drug and crime prevention and for treatment and criminal justice interventions.1 A major impediment in this area in Ireland, however, is the absence of research and data from within the criminal justice system. Although annual data are available from the Central Statistics Office and the Courts Service on the number of drug offences (infringements of drug laws such as possession and supply) that are committed, and from the Irish Prison Service on the number of prison committals for drug offences, data are not routinely available on the number of drug-related offences committed as a consequence of substance misuse, whether alcohol-related public order offences or thefts committed by dependent drug users to feed their drug habit, for example. The development of a knowledge base of this kind often requires further analysis of the data compiled within agencies of the criminal justice system.

In 2012, the Probation Service published the findings of the first large-scale, nationwide survey of drug and alcohol misuse among the adult offender population on probation supervision,2 followed in late 2013 by the report of a similar survey of young offenders (aged 20 years or under) who were on probation supervision.3

The main objectives of the latter survey were:
·         to determine the number of young offenders under probation supervision who had misused drugs and/or alcohol;
·         to investigate the nature and frequency of drug and alcohol misuse;
·         to examine the context within which drug and alcohol misuse occurred;
·         to ascertain whether a relationship exists between drug misuse and offending behaviour and alcohol misuse and offending behaviour;
·         to identify the range and nature of engagement with drug and alcohol treatment services. (p.9)
The survey population was identified by means of the Probation Service electronic case tracking system. Probation officers completed and returned survey questionnaires relating to 721 offenders on their casebooks on 3 December 2012, of whom 647 (89.7%) were male and 74 (10.3%) were female.
Of the 721 cases surveyed, 628 (87%) were identified as having misused drugs, alcohol or a combination of both; 12% had misused drugs only, and 12% had misused alcohol only. Male and female offenders had relatively similar rates of substance misuse. Alcohol was the substance most often misused on a weekly basis (39.8% of males and 43.6% of females), followed by cannabis (20.4% of males, 14.5% of females). Females were ‘less likely to have misused both drugs and alcohol and significantly less likely than males to have misused drugs alone (1%). However females were more likely than males to have misused alcohol only (16% compared to 12%)’ (p.17). Twenty-six per cent of females were reported to have abstained entirely from either drug or alcohol abuse, compared to 11% of males. A higher percentage of females (14.5%) than males (8.9%) misused prescription drugs (p.20).
The study also explored the ‘gateways and influences’ which surround the misuse of drugs and alcohol by young offenders. Alcohol was recorded as the most common substance first misused, followed by cannabis. A higher percentage of females than males were reported to have started with alcohol (females 70.9%, males 55.7%), while cannabis as the first substance used was higher for males (males 35.3%, females 23.6%). While substance misuse was reported as commencing as young as 9 years, the median age was 14 years. Consistent with most other studies in this area, more than 80% of offenders first engaged in substance misuse with their peers. Of the 628 offenders who had misused a substance, 38.9% had parents with a history of substance misuse, while 55.6% did not. In explaining this phenomenon, and citing a UK study, the report states that ‘alcohol consumption in Great Britain and Ireland can only be appreciated in the context of a “wet culture”, whereby young people’s drinking is essentially “normal” behaviour, part of a wider socialisation process, reflecting adult practices’ (p.25).

With regard to the link between substance misuse and crime, in more than 80% of cases substance misuse was linked, in the professional opinion of the probation officer, to current offending. Alcohol was the substance most frequently linked to offending for 61.7% of females and 43.8% of males. Drug misuse on its own was linked to a relatively small amount of offending. Public order was the most common offence category linked to offending and ‘in nearly 70% of those cases alcohol was the substance of misuse’ (p.30). In cases of assault, over half of the cases identified alcohol as the substance of misuse. Again, these findings are consistent with those of earlier Irish research in this area.4 Over half of the survey population had attended some form of drug/alcohol treatment, the majority of whom were aged between 18 and 20 years.
One of the key performance indicators under the research/ information pillar of the current drugs strategyis comprehensive and timely reporting systems for the ‘progression of offenders with drug-related offences through the criminal justice system'.5 Action 55 proposes as an area of research ‘the impact of alcohol and drugs on the Irish health and justice systems’. This initiative by the Probation Service makes an important contribution in this respect. 
  1. For a general discussion see Connolly J (2006) Drugs and crime in Ireland. HRB Overview Series 3. Dublin: Health Research Board.
  2. Martyn M (2012) Drug and alcohol misuse among adult offenders on probation supervision in Ireland: findings from the drugs and alcohol survey 2011. Navan: The Probation Service. www.drugsandalcohol.ie/18746. See also Connolly J (2013) Investigating the links between substance misuse and crime. Drugnet Ireland, 45: 15.
  3.  Horgan J (2013) Drug and alcohol misuse among young offenders on probation supervision in Ireland. Navan: The Probation Service.www.drugsandalcohol.ie/21333
  4.  Institute of Criminology (2003) Public order offences in Ireland: a report by the Institute of Criminology, Faculty of Law, University College Dublin for the National Crime Council. Dublin: Stationery Office. www.drugsandalcohol.ie/5437
  5. Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (2009) National Drugs Strategy (interim) 2009–2016. Dublin: Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. (p.97).  

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