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Did Alcohol Prohibition Reduce Alcohol Consumption and Crime?

Did Alcohol Prohibition increase crime?

The assertion:  
 A second reason why Prohibition was a successful program is due to the fact that it did not -- contrary to popular myth--cause an increase in the crime rate. It is true that there was an increase in the homicide rate during Prohibition, but this is not the same as an increase in the overall crime rate. Furthermore, the increase in homicide occurred predominantly in the African-American community, and African-Americans at that time were not the people responsible for alcohol trafficking.108 The drama of Elliot Ness and Al Capone largely was just that, drama sensationalized by the media of the time." From 
Chapter 6 - Role of Tobacco and Alcohol in the Drug Legalization Debate  from "Drug Legalization: Myths and Misconceptions" by the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. 

The Short Answer:


The Longer Answer:

The references above have already shown that common people who had never been involved in crime before engaged in criminal activity after alcohol prohibition started. But there is far more evidence of a Prohibition crime wave than just those references.

This chart shows that there were steep increases in both homicides and prisoners in custody during Prohibition. 

Homicide Rate and Receipt of Prisoners 1910-1987 shows the number of people sent to prisons also rose during Prohibition. While a good deal of that rise was due to alcohol prohibition (see the charts linked below) a good deal of it was also due to prohibition of opiates and cocaine which had occurred just before alcohol prohibition. For example see this NY Times article from 1920.

The following charts show elements of increased crime that were the direct result of alcohol prohibition:

Arrests under the Volstead Act 

Convictions and Acquittals Under the Volstead Act 

Autos and Boats Seized under the Volstead Act 

Agents Injured and Killed Under the Volstead Act 

Liquor and Beer Seized Under the Volstead Act

Casualties per 1,000 Arrests Under the Volstead Act

Total Arrests in Philadelphia 1910-1925

1910 82,017
1911 87,557
1912 96,084
1913 103,673
1914 100,629
1915 91,237
1916 95,783
1917 96,041
1918 94,037
1919 75,618
1920 73,015
1921 83,136
1922 99,601
1923 115,399
1924 130,759
1925 137,263

 Statement of William S. Vare, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  

Police Corruption

"As to corruption it is sufficient to refer to the reported decisions of the courts during the past decade in all parts of the country, which reveal a succession of prosecutions for conspiracies, sometimes involving the police, prosecuting and administrative organizations of whole communities; to the flagrant corruption disclosed in connection with diversions of industrial alcohol and unlawful production of beer; to the record of federal prohibition administration as to which cases of corruption have been continuous and corruption has appeared in services which in the past had been above suspicion; to the records of state police organizations; to the revelations as to police corruption in every type of municipality, large and small, throughout the decade; to the conditions as to prosecution revealed in surveys of criminal justice in many parts of the land; to the evidence of connection between corrupt local politics and gangs and the organized unlawful liquor traffic, and of systematic collection of tribute from that traffic for corrupt political purposes. There have been other eras of corruption. Indeed, such eras are likely to follow wars. Also there was much corruption in connection with the regulation of the liquor traffic before prohibition. But the present regime of corruption in connection with the liquor traffic is operating in a new and larger field and is more extensive.

. . .

But of even more significance is the margin of profit in smuggling liquor, in diversion of industrial alcohol, in illicit distilling and brewing, in bootlegging, and in the manufacture and sale of products of which the bulk goes into illicit or doubtfully lawful making of liquor. This profit makes possible systematic and organized violation of the National Prohibition Act on a large scale and offers rewards on a par with the most important legitimate industries. It makes lavish expenditure in corruption possible. It puts heavy temptation in the way of everyone engaged in enforcement or administration of the law. It affords a financial basis for organized crime.

The operation of the National Prohibition Act has also thrown a greatly increased burden upon the federal penal institutions which seems bound to increase with any effective increase in enforcement. The reports of the Department of Justice show that the total federal long term prison population, i. e., prisoners serving sentences of more than a year, has risen from not more than 5,268 on June 30, 1921 to 14,115 on June 30, 1930. The number of long term prisoners confined in the five leading federal institutions on June 30, 1930 for violation of the National Prohibition Act and other national liquor laws was 4,296 out of a total of 12,332. The percentage of long term violators of the National Prohibition Act and other national liquor laws to total federal prisoners confined in the five leading federal institutions on June 30, 1930 was therefore something over one-third. This constituted by far the largest class of long term federal prisoners so confined, the next largest classes being made up of those sentenced for violation of the Dyer Act (the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act) and the Narcotic Acts, the percentage of whom on June 30, 1930 were, respectively, 13.2% and 22% of the total.

 Bad Features of the Present Situation and Difficulties in the Way of Enforcement from Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (Wickersham Commission Report on Alcohol Prohibition)


The early experience of the Prohibition era gave the government a taste of what was to come. In the three months before the 18th Amendment became effective, liquor worth half a million dollars was stolen from Government warehouses. By midsummer of 1920, federal courts in Chicago were overwhelmed with some 600 pending liquor violation trials (Sinclair, 1962: 176-177). Within three years, 30 prohibition agents were killed in service.

Other statistics demonstrated the increasing volume of the bootleg trade. In 1921, 95,933 illicit distilleries, stills, still works and fermentors were seized. in 1925, the total jumped to 172,537 and up to 282,122 in 1930. In connection with these seizures, 34,175 persons were arrested in 1921; by 1925, the number had risen to 62,747 and to a high in 1928 of 75,307 (Internal Revenue, Service, 1921, 1966, 1970: 95, 6, 73). Concurrently, convictions for liquor offenses in federal courts rose from 35,000 in 1923 to 61,383 in 1932.

"The History of Alcohol Prohibition"   from Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, Commissioned by President Richard M. Nixon, March, 1972

One of the most imposing promises made by the friends of prohibition before the eighteenth amendment was that by abolishing drink crime would be decreased to a minimum. That promise has not been fulfilled. Crime has increased in such amazing proportion that it has become the dominant consideration of most of the State and municipal governments of the Nation. A national crime commission of distinguished men from every section of the country, has been formed, and a bill is now pending in the New York Legislature which has to do with the appointment of a joint committee, to be joined by citizens to determine the came and possible remedies to reduce the tremendous wave of crime that is sweeping not only the country but New York as well.

I need not quote statistics to this committee, I am sure, to demonstrate that this is the most lawless country on the face of the earth. I go a step further. I assert that prohibition is one of the largest contributing factors to that disgraceful condition, by reason of the conceded, failure or inability of Federal and State authorities to enforce the law; it has created a disrespect for law which, starting with prohibition, has gone all along the line.

Statement of Judge Alfred J. Talley, Judge of the Court of General Sessions of the State of New York, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"  

"Federal judges have told me, and their names I can supply if required, that the whole atmosphere of the Federal Building was one of pollution, that the air of corruption had even descended into the civil parts of the court, and reports were made to the senior United States judge of attempts to bribe jurymen even in the toilets of the building." 

Testimony of Hon. Emory R. Buckner, United States Attorney, Southern District of New York, "The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"

The corrupt prohibition agent or policeman is just as much a part of the bootleg industry as the bootlegger himself. Last year it took two Pullman cars to transfer to Atlanta the convicted policemen and prohibition agents corralled in a single round-up in Ohio. In May, 1925, a special grand jury in Morris County, N. J., was reported in the press as returning at one time 28 indictments against county officers and others for violations of the Volstead Act. About the same time, the Rev. Marna S. Poulson, superintendent of the New Jersey Anti -Saloon League, was reported in the New York Times as saying, in an address at a prohibition rally at Atlantic City, "I don't know of anyone who can make a dollar go further than policemen and dry agents. By frugality, after a year in the service, they acquire automobiles and diamonds."

Since the organization of the prohibition service to February 1, 1926, 875 persons have been separated from the Prohibition Unit mostly for official faithlessness or downright rascality. Nor does the total that I have given include delinquents not dismissed but only allowed to resign. Neither has the Coast Guard, that nursing mother of brave and devoted men, military as its discipline is, by any means escaped the contamination of prohibition. Since the duty was assigned to it of preventing the smuggling of liquor from the sea into the United States, 7 temporary warrant officers, 11 permanent enlisted men, and 25 temporary enlisted men have been convicted of yielding, in one form or another, to the seductions of money or liquor in connection with prohibition work. I am unable to say how many members of the force have been arrested but not convicted. On December 10, 1925, a United Press dispatch reported that the entire crews of two Coast Guard patrol boats which had been assigned to patrol duty off the coast of Florida had been court-martialed for conniving with bootleggers. On March 8, 1926, a dispatch to the New York Times from Providence, R. I., announced that Capt. Eli Sprague, who had been for 12 years the commander of the New Shoreham (Block Island) Coast Guard station, and had shared in the rescue of more than 500 persons, had been held for trial on two secret conspiracy indictments. On or about February 18, 1926, the Washington Daily News reported that Boatswain's Mate Joseph Libby, who had walked barefoot through ice and snow to obtain succor for his comrades whom he had left unconscious from extreme cold on patrol boat 126, had been dishonorably discharged from the Coast Guard for bootlegging.

In view of what I have said, it is not surprising that Dr. Horace Taft, head master of the Taft School at Watertown and brother of Chief Justice Taft, should have said a few days ago at a law-enforcement meeting at Yale, "The United States is threatened with the rotting of her moral foundations and of her political and social structure as a direct result of prohibition."

"Statement by Hon. William Cabell Bruce, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"



That the law is unenforceable; that it has created more crime than there ever was prior to prohibition; that the morals of our Nation are worse by far than prior to prohibition; that it has forcibly illustrated that you can not change habits of centuries by laws without creating contempt for that particular law and also for all laws in general; that the average working man feels that the Volstead Act only benefits two classes–––

1. The fanatic who wants to reform and regulate everything by law.

2. The second beneficiary is the bootlegger.

. . .

The Volstead Act has been the direct result of creating more crime in the State of New Jersey than there ever has been before.

It has endangered the life and limb of those using the public streets, through autos being operated by drunken drivers; it may be that there were just as many auto drivers that drank before prohibition, but what they drank did not affect their ability to run an automobile with safety. To-day one or two drinks create a menace to life and limb to those who use our streets and highways.

Statistics have shown that drivers of automobiles arrested for drunkenness have increased 100 per cent in the last few years. Some one may ask where do they get it?

If some one would ask the question: Where can't you get it? It would be more difficult to answer.

Testimony of Henry Hilfers, President, New Jersey State Federation of Labor, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"

Nothing is and nothing could be more certain, from all the evidence, than that prohibition is an unqualified failure and a colossal calamity to the Nation.

Whatever promotes drunkenness and drug addiction and all forms of intemperance also promotes crime of every kind.

We have the unimpeachable evidence of our senses that certainly more than half the crimes and misdemeanors perpetrated throughout the land and sensationally featured and headlined in the newspapers are crimes which are the result of prohibition.

Prohibition is a double-headed hydra of lawlessness, for we have on the one hand the crimes that infract the law of prohibition, and crimes that result from alcohol and drug intemperance that follow in the wake Of prohibition; and on the other hand we have the crimes of attempted enforcement of prohibition and the crimes of punishment, which are no less crimes because they have the sanction of expediency of prohibition law enforcement.

Testimony of Hiram Maxim, Inventor of the Maxim Machine Gun, The National Prohibition Law, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-Ninth Congress, April 5 to 24, 1926"


If you want to comment, or if you think you have some online references that tell the story better, please send me an e-mail at cliff_schaffer@yahoo.com.

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