The SOBER Act is bipartisan federal legislation that would provide states with resources to create or expand “24/7 sobriety” programs, which have been found to reduce criminogenic drinking without imposing costs on responsible alcohol consumers. The bill would save lives, reduce crime and violence, and ease burdens on state and federal corrections systems.
The SOBER Act would create a new grant within the federal Office of Justice Programs and authorize the appropriation of $50 million each year for five years, for a total potential appropriation of $250 million. Specifically, the SOBER Act would:
· Provide funding to help sustain and expand existing 24/7 sobriety programs;
· Incentivize the creation of 24/7 sobriety programs; and
· Provide data from grantees and a report from the NIJ assessing the impact of 24/7 sobriety programs on violence, crime, recidivism, and incarceration.
The merits of monitoring
People should talk more about the success of South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety Program, which has since spread to other states.
The program is for people who’ve been convicted of alcohol-related offenses and essentially revokes their license to drink. People in the program need to either take a breathalyzer twice a day or else wear a continuous alcohol monitoring bracelet. If you break the rules by drinking or failing to comply with the monitoring, you face a swift and certain sanction of a day or two in jail. This induces a high level of compliance and has led to fewer drunk driving arrests and ultimately less mass incarceration.
The late Mark Kleiman, whose wisdom on public safety issues I have missed over the past three years, was very bullish on this program and always aspired to extend the model to create a superior form of parole.
He outlined his idea in the 2010 book When Brute Force Fails, arguing that we should use modern technology to surveil parolees more intensively. Substance abuse is involved in a large share of criminal activities, so parolees could be put on mandatory abstinence programs modeled on 24/7 Sobriety. These days it is also relatively cheap and easy to give people GPS monitoring bracelets like those often used for house arrest. If you’re caught breaking into someone’s house and then outfitted with a monitoring bracelet, you know that if you commit another burglary, there’s going to be clear evidence that you were present in the house during the time when it was broken into.
People who don’t like the idea of punishing crimes will hate this idea because it’s punitive. But people who are genuinely troubled by mass incarceration as a phenomenon will see that — as with the DNA database — if you punish people in a way that reduces recidivism, you ultimately end up with fewer people in prison. The finding from the DNA paper that people in the database are more likely to get jobs, pursue an education, and have stable family situations is also reassuring. Being in prison is horrible, but many people are genuinely better off when forced to stop committing crimes. Ultimately, if we have a solid track record of successfully preventing crime with these kinds of measures, we can let people out of prison much sooner and make long prison sentences a genuinely rare phenomenon.
Direct punishments of problematic or illegal drinking, if designed correctly, can also have significant impacts on alcohol-related crimes. Abstention from alcohol, for instance, is a common requirement for parole or part of a punishment for crimes such as drunken driving. Inconsistent enforcement, however, has often undermined the effectiveness of such a requirement, but newer programs that ensure better compliance can yield considerable results.
The model for such a program is 24/7 Sobriety, which was first instituted in South Dakota but has since spread to other states. The program follows a model of consistent but relatively mild punishment: program participants must take a Breathalyzer test twice a day, and any failed or missed test is punished by a night or two in jail.62 This approach follows the contemporary criminological argument that greater deterrent gains can currently be made by increasing the certainty, rather than the severity, of punishment.
All but four South Dakota counties (Buffalo, Jones, Oglala Lakota and Todd) use the program, which focuses on repeat offenders and is largely self-funded because the cost of testing is passed on to participants.
In most counties, the first time the participant fails a test or doesn’t show up, he or she is jailed for 12 hours, followed by 24 hours for a second violation and 48 hours for a third. Any further violations are sent to a judge, who can impose more severe penalties.
The next test for the program is to see if 24/7 Sobriety can catch on nationally. U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota, is co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation to offer federal grants for states to adopt the intervention model, while also encouraging further study on its effects on drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
The SOBER Act (Supporting Opportunities to Build Everyday Responsibility) would help defray administrative costs for equipment that includes not just breathalyzers but also for urinalysis, drug patches, monitoring bracelets and ignition interlock devices, which prevent a vehicle from starting unless the driver passes a breath test.
Rep. Johnson supports South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety model but concedes that other states might need to find different ways to implement the program. The SOBER Act would provide $250 million to states over five years to “create, sustain and expand” their programs and gather data, with a common goal of avoiding crowded jails and decreasing the amount of recidivism with DUIs and other offenses.
“I’ve got pretty strong opinions on this issue, but I don’t think all of the wisdom resides in D.C.,” said Johnson. “So rather than impose my opinion on the states, we wanted to give them the flexibility to chart their course. Maybe we’ll all do it differently, and we’ll be able to learn which is best through time and data.”
Johnson’s bill is supported by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Niskanen Center, a Libertarian-leaning think tank in Washington. But other groups have been a tougher sell. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) has criticized the 24/7 Sobriety system for focusing not on impaired driving but on alcoholism, which they consider too broad a scope.
“There’s been a bit of a transformation in thinking, particularly among Republicans,” said Johnson. “Thirty years ago, the dominant thought among Republican policymakers was that the severity of the punishment was enough to deter crime. We now know that it’s the certainty and swiftness of sanctions that change behavior, and this is a positive step.”
This assessment sought to extend the earlier research into North Dakota experience as a promising program into a maturing program. The goal was to offer evidence-based knowledge for critical program aspects in the state’s continuous program improvement initiative. The focus areas were: (1) if positive deterrent effects were statistically evident during program enrollment; (2) if deterrent effects were sustained beyond program completion; (3) if deterrent effects were stronger among certain participant subpopulations; and, (4) if select factors were associated with greater likelihood for to recidivism. Results show that participants significantly improve crash and citation metrics after enrolling in the program. Individuals participating in the program for a fourth-time offense or higher have greater likelihood of relapsing into the alcohol impaired driving behavior. These individuals may benefit from supplemental strategies as they comprise a driver subpopulation more likely to have chronic alcohol abuse and mental health issues.