The Longitudinal Associations Between Substance Use, Crime, and Social Risk Among Emerging Adults

A Longitudinal Within and Between-Person Latent Variables Analysis

Published in: Drug and Alcohol Dependence, v. 165, 1 Aug. 2016, p. 71-78

Posted on on July 21, 2016

by Gabriel J. Merrin, Jordan P. Davis, Daniel Berry, Elizabeth J. D'Amico, Tara M. Dumas

Research Question

  1. How does understanding of the link between crime and substance use in young adults change with the use of ALT-SR (auto-regressive latent growth with structured residuals) modeling in comparison to ARCL (auto-regressive, cross-lagged) modeling?

BACKGROUND: The reciprocal relationship between crime and substance use is well known. However, when examining this relationship, no study to date has disaggregated between- and within-person effects, which represents a more methodologically sound and developmentally-appropriate analytic approach. Further, few studies have considered the role of social risk (e.g., deviant peers, high-risk living situations) in the aforementioned relationship. We examined these associations in a group of individuals with heightened vulnerability to substance use, crime and social risk: emerging adults (aged 18–25 years) in substance use treatment. METHODS: Participants were 3479 emerging adults who had entered treatment. We used auto-regressive latent growth models with structured residuals (ALT-SR) to examine the within-person cross-lagged association between crime and substance use and whether social risk contributed to this association. A taxonomy of nested models was used to determine the structural form of the data, within-person cross-lagged associations, and between-person associations. RESULTS: In contrast to the extant literature on cross-lagged relations between crime and substance use, we found little evidence of such relations once between- and within-person relations were plausibly disaggregated. Yet, our results indicated that within-person increases in social risk were predictive of subsequent increases in crime and substance use. Post-hoc analyses revealed a mediation effect of social risk between crime and substance use. CONCLUSIONS: Findings suggest the need to re-think the association between crime and substance use among emerging adults. Individuals that remain connected to high-risk social environments after finishing treatment may represent a group that could use more specialized, tailored treatments.

Key Findings

  • ALT-SR modeling advances the understanding of the longitudinal effects of social risk, crime, and substance use among young adults who have been in substance abuse treatment.
  • Previous studies of the associations between crime and substance use have used the ARCL model and have not considered within-person (individual-level) effects or addressed social context.
  • Inclusion of within-person effects with the ALT-SR model allows researchers to interpret findings in a more developmentally appropriate and statistically meaningful way, and can help them understand how treatment might work at an individual level.
  • The ALT-SR model also shows that social risk mediates the association between substance use and crime.


  • This study's findings suggest that the association between crime and substance abuse among young adults needs to be re-evaluated.
  • Interventions could include a focus on changing one's environment or use of motivational interviewing to help young adults with strong ties to high-risk social environments sustain their reductions in substance use and criminal behavior after treatment.

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