The era of criminalized public drunkenness was over

Wednesday, June 10th, 2020

Drinking in public wasn’t a crime until rather recently:

In 1963, it was unlikely that you would have been arrested for drinking in public — but you could have been arrested for being a “common drunkard.”

Most states and municipalities had laws on the books that made it illegal to be a “common drunkard” or a “vagrant,” terms used to describe those who would be known today as alcoholic and homeless, respectively. The police arrested hundreds of thousands of people every year for violating these so-called vagrancy and public drunkenness laws, which were at the heart of the police’s mission to control urban social disorder. Such laws defined life on Skid Row: Some perennially homeless, alcoholic men spent years of their lives in jail, in 30-day increments, on charges of public drunkenness and vagrancy.

But in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, legal scholars started to criticize how these laws were enforced, using arguments that would be familiar to anyone following the contemporary debate around drug decriminalization. Critics argued that arresting, charging and incarcerating “drunkards” wasted scarce police and court resources; that the laws were enforced more stringently against poor black people than against affluent white people; and that “public drunkenness” was a moral and medical issue better addressed in churches and hospitals than jails and courtrooms.

In short, they called for reform. The Supreme Court heeded that call in 1964, in its landmark decision Robinson v. California. The immediate effect of the decision was to strike down a California statute classifying drug addiction as a crime. But it also rang the death knell for all “status offenses,” vagrancy chief among them.

In a later decision, the Supreme Court chose not to strike down public drunkenness laws as unconstitutional. The court found that such laws prohibited the act of “appearing in public while drunk,” rather than “being an alcoholic.”

But the writing was on the wall. Vaguely defined status offenses like public drunkenness and vagrancy were constitutionally unsound and, in the long run, unenforceable.

Further pressure to overturn public drunkenness laws came from the executive and legislative branches. Two Presidential Commissions on Crime described public drunkenness laws as ineffective deterrents to repeat offenders and a burden on the criminal justice system. They strongly recommended that public drunkenness be decriminalized. And in 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Alcoholism Treatment Act, which called on states to decriminalize public drunkenness and shift their handling of public inebriates to the health system. Thirty-five states adopted it, and most of the others passed similar laws.

By the end of the ‘70s, arrests for public drunkenness had dropped by half nationwide. (They would continue to fall, almost unabated, until the present.) The era of criminalized public drunkenness was over, after 350 years. Doctors and advocates for the rights of the homeless and alcoholics started to breathe easier.

Not everyone was happy, though. Entrenched business interests and well-to-do citizens, and their allies in state and local legislatures, still wanted the police to take undesirable homeless and alcoholic people off the streets. But as public drunkenness and vagrancy were no longer criminal acts, the police had no tools at their disposal.

Enter the ban on public drinking.


They leave no room for ambiguity or subjectivity. You either are violating the law, or you aren’t.


  1. Lu An Li says:

    All that “reform” stuff never works. Just feel-good do-gooder stuff that never solves the basic problem. Lots of those skid row types just beyond hope, many efforts made to “help” them and all failing.

  2. Kirk says:

    The fundamental reason most “reforms” fail is that the reformers are themselves usually highly dysfunctional delusional who lack any sort of understanding about the thing they’re trying to reform.

    You can observe this in microcosm around every hierarchy-based organization. The “leadership” is rarely in touch with reality as it is lived at the lowest level of the hierarchy, and have entirely delusional models of how things work at that lower level. They observe a “problem”, usually something truly petty and insignificant, which offends their sensibilities, and then seek to “effect change”. Only thing is, they don’t grasp that the so-called “problem” is actually an artifact of the environment they have allowed to grow up at that lower level, an environment that they then totally ignore in an attempt to make “change” happen.

    Generally, their methodology is a new regulation, a memo, a law, or something else that outlaws the problem while simultaneously ignoring what really causes that “problem” to exist. Followed by the “problem” remaining in existence while adding a new layer of bullshit for the junior levels to deal with.

    This is why most organizations with more than a few layers wind up self-destructing in a sclerotic mess after a generation or two. By the end point, there are so many nonsensical rules in place that nothing can get done, and nobody really cares, because all they’re doing is running around a maze of bureaucratic bullshit that dozens of successive “leaders” have put in place in futile attempts to exert their will.

    Humans don’t do organization well, at all. We are not creatures of the hierarchy, nor do we work very effectively within them. You want to reform public drinking? Well, you’re not going to do it by writing a new rule or a new law; you’re going to have to get out there and engage with the drinkers, figure out what makes them want to do it out in public, and then come up with a means to motivate them not to, whether by social shaming (remember when it was abhorrent to smoke in front of women…?), or just give up and have a freakin’ beer with them.

  3. Sam J. says:

    “…All that “reform” stuff never works…Lots of those skid row types just beyond hope, many efforts made to “help” them and all failing…”

    This may be true in lot of cases but it’s not at all true categorically. I do not see trying to help your fellow Man as a wasted cause.

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