Crime is a complex subject. Protecting children from Adverse Childhood Experiences prevents crime and strengthens communities.
A neighbor called on Saturday morning to tell me that Larry had died. The day before, he saw me walking my dog and stopped so he could play with him. When they had finished, I received a big hug.
The day he died, he called me from the top of a roof and told me how much he loved my dog. Shortly after, he got off the roof, went into his house, and shot up for the last time.
Larry was a drug dealer. The unending string of people nodding out on the front porch, wearing socks but not shoes to hide that they were shooting into their feet, removed all shadow of a doubt, as did the monthly police raids of his house. But nothing kept Larry from his job for more than a day.
He was one of the few people I talked to on my street about my job. When I spoke of Adverse Childhood Experiences, he’d always say some version of “we all survive shit as kids,” with a little bit of a melancholy recoil in his voice every time.
Many people associate crime with poverty, homelessness, and mental health issues. This simplification neglects the multitude of factors behind crime statistics. Discussing all the factors contributing to criminal behaviors allows us to see what to change.
So what affects crime? Empirical research associated with the Adverse Childhood Experiences study from the Centers for Disease Control has demonstrated that ACEs cause various adverse outcomes in adulthood, including criminal justice system involvement.
A new study from Columbia University should remind us of something history has consistently shown: the relationship between poverty and crime is far from predictable or consistent. Socioeconomic gaps encourage crime, as watching others have everything they want and need when you struggle to meet your daily needs breeds resentment. The Columbia study revealed that nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of New York City’s Asian population was impoverished, exceeding that of the city’s black people (19 percent). Given the widespread perception that Asians are mainly affluent, this was surprising. But the study contains an even more startling aspect. In New York City, Asians’ relatively high poverty rate is accompanied by exceptionally low crime rates, undercutting the common belief that poverty and crime go hand in hand.
Crime isn’t limited to people in poverty; many types of crime, such as corruption, are committed by wealthier classes. But people in impoverished communities struggle to survive, and in their struggle, they may find it easier to commit a crime to get the resources they desperately need.
Drug dealing typically starts as a way for users like Larry to make enough money to feed their addiction. He lived in section 8 housing, which is for low-income people. He didn’t drive, and he’d do odd jobs for cash. But he had enough money for enough dog treats for all his canine neighbors. I never asked him about the ethics of drug dealing, as he saw it, but other heroin dealers I’ve talked with see themselves as pharmacists; they provide something people need to avoid sickness.
There is less of a safety net for those with few or no resources. Their fight-or-flight mechanism activates, and most people will fight for themselves and their loved ones when it comes to self-preservation. If violence is required to secure needed resources, so be it. I never noticed a gun on Larry, but one of his housemates assured me he was always armed.
Many people think the poverty solution is “just go and get a job.” Another oversimplification. People in poverty have fewer opportunities around assets such as education, interview practice, resume help, or the proper clothing for an interview. Some may not know how to begin the journey of job hunting.
Many governments have developed aid and support programs that provide food benefits, living help, and restricted cash to alleviate the stress of poverty and satisfy needs for necessities.
However, persistent demands exist to reduce eligibility, impose stricter enrollment requirements, or eliminate them because there may be a 1-5% fraud rate. These programs can uplift entire generations of people and build communities out of generational poverty. Research shows generational poverty results in unfavorable results in adulthood.
Mental health has become a go-to explanation for violent crime, creating a stigma that hinders the disbursement of resources to people who need them. According to one study, 12 percent of adult psychiatric patients receiving treatment in the San Diego County health system had prior incarcerations. In contrast, 28 percent of Connecticut residents treated for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder had been arrested or detained.
For the mentally ill, the best recourse is to keep them out of juvenile and criminal justice systems through community-based, engaging programs. It also involves educating stakeholders, notably law enforcement, on mental health issues, crisis de-escalation techniques, and community-based treatment alternatives to jail. The overwhelming majority of children and teenagers in the juvenile justice system have histories of trauma exposure, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and untreated mental health issues, which can impair mental health and result in a prolonged presence in the criminal justice system.
Institutions should offer screening, access to appropriate mental health experts, and information about mental illness and treatment. Additionally, people are entitled to refuse harmful practices like solitary confinement, which may have highly detrimental consequences, and medical care. Along with having a say in their treatment plan, those involved in the patient’s care should collaborate to develop strategies to help patients transition out of custody or prison, reintegrate into their communities, and stay out of further contact with the juvenile or criminal justice systems.
As my neighbor detailed Larry’s last days, and I recalled my last memories of him, I couldn’t help but wonder if his overdose was at least somewhat deliberate. He was very involved in the neighborhood, but I always sensed some loneliness there. Sometimes he spoke about his adult children in a way that underplayed his estrangement with them. His children grew up with a father addicted to drugs and alcohol; I understand their choice to estrange from him. I recognize the pain that causes and realize that it could add to the childhood pain he alluded to but never discussed. And, I realize how that lead to Larry’s life and death.
Approximately 580,466 people, or nearly 18 of every 10,000 Americans, were homeless on a single night in January 2020. Whenever we discuss homelessness, it seems to be followed by conversations about crime. Are all homeless people inherently criminals? The answer is complicated, as it’s not necessarily illegal not to have a place to live, but jurisdictions crimanalize many options for the homeless. For people struggling to survive, many of whom are active drug users, sometimes it seems crime is the only option. However, if we provide the right resources to those who require them, we can offer a place for them to thrive, rebuild their lives, and restart their story.
Homelessness cannot be simplified. The majority of those who experience homelessness don’t end up there overnight. The best way to help is by being informed. Informed, you can help dispel myths and erase the stigma around homelessness. Ways to help include rehousing programs, where the goal is to find assisted permanent housing with no time limit. We can also prevent homelessness by offering help to at-risk people before they end up on the streets.
Drug and alcohol abuse
It’s clear that drug addicts commit a lot of crimes, especially when their addiction is active. Even though many jail and prison inmates qualify as having a substance abuse disorder, few can access any addiction treatment while incarcerated. Drug offenders who complete their sentences without having addiction treatment are almost certain to resume alcohol or drug abuse and are highly likely to re-offend on another drug-related charge.
Many substance-related behaviors have a significant, graded connection with ACEs, according to research, including:
- An older adult’s (50 years and older) increased risk of mental and substance use disorders.
- Tobacco use as an adult.
- Self-reported addiction, drug dependence, and lifetime usage of illegal drugs.
- Early onset of alcohol use, ACEs can forecast the beginning of drinking at a younger age.
A 2004 study revealed that almost one-third of state convicts and one-fourth of federal prisoners acknowledged committing crimes while under the influence of illegal narcotics. Additionally, sixty percent of people arrested test positive for illicit drugs at the time of the arrest. Drug abuse and crime almost go hand in hand, yet we have still not made seeking rehabilitation an accessible process.
There is a solid, linear link between ACE score and odds of being an alcoholic. Alcohol abuse also has a proven connection to violent crimes, as many inmates have consumed alcohol during or before committing a crime. According to recent data from the WHO, CDC, and BJS:
- 95,000 people in the US die each year from excessive alcohol use, which is about 261 deaths per day, making it the leading cause of preventable death in America.
- Alcohol use increases the likelihood of youth violence, child maltreatment and abuse, intimate partner violence, elder abuse, and sexual assault and sexual violence.
- Of those intoxicated, while committing a violent crime, 1/3 are believed to have been under the influence of alcohol.
- In 2019, an estimated 15% of the population struggled with an alcohol use disorder (aka alcoholism or an addiction to alcohol).
- An estimated 2/3 of interpersonal violence (IPV) is attributed to alcohol. Some countries report as much as 70% of IPV perpetrated by someone under the influence of alcohol.
Substance abuse disorders fuel much juvenile crime. Without proper help and intervention, these children spend the rest of their lives in and out of prison. Here are some statistics on juvenile drug and alcohol-related crimes:
- An estimated 1.9 to 2.4 million minors in the juvenile justice system have substance abuse or addiction problems
- 86% of juvenile offenders have a history of substance use
- 85% of juvenile offenders admitted they had bought drugs, and 55% admitted to selling drugs
- One-third of teens arrested for assault claimed they were drunk or high when the incident occurred
Crime is a complex issue committed by complex people. Offering the proper resources to the people who need them the most can help. Bringing impoverished communities out of poverty with investment, services for the mentally ill, permanent housing for the homeless, and rehabilitation for people dealing with substance abuse disorders would lower crime rates significantly. Offering help to the needy and closing socioeconomic gaps would lead to a more cohesive society where our neighbors and neighborhoods can thrive and prosper through legal means.
Bisma Abedin contributed to this story.
Executive Director, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.