Responsible consumption of alcohol is considered safe and enjoyable, and nearly all alcohol users drink responsibly. At the same time, problematic alcohol use by a relatively small percentage of alcohol drinkers causes enormous social costs. A recent study found that destructive alcohol use cost the United States nearly $250 billion in 2010 alone.
The most serious cost of problematic drinking is early death. Excessive alcohol use is blamed for about 95,000 deaths each year in the United States, including about 10,000 deaths from driving under the influence. By contrast, about 93,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2020. Between 1999 and 2017, alcohol-related deaths in the United States more than doubled. Alcohol-related deaths cost Americans approximately 3 million years of potential life each year.
Excessive alcohol use has long been associated with aggression and violence. For example, “excessive consumption of alcohol” is implicated in nearly half of all sexual assaults, while the World Health Organization describes problematic alcohol consumption as a “major contributor” to intimate partner violence. Notably, alcohol and violence are interdependent; Alcohol consumption increases aggression, but abuse increases alcohol consumption.
Problematic alcohol use incurs significant criminal justice costs and contributes to mass incarceration. A 2016 survey found that one in four federal inmates and nearly one in three state inmates reported drinking alcohol at the time of the crime. According to the same survey, 21 percent of state inmates met criteria for alcohol use disorder in the year prior to admission to prison. The costs of crimes attributed to alcohol are approximately $84 billion annually, more than twice the costs of crimes attributed to drugs.
The SOBER Act is a federal, bipartisan piece of legislation that would provide states with the resources to create or expand “24-hour sobriety” programs, which have been found to reduce alcohol drinking without imposing costs on responsible alcohol consumers. The bill would save lives, reduce crime and violence, and ease burdens on state and federal prison systems.
24/7 Sobriety Program
24/7 sobriety is based on the idea that some criminal behavior attributed to alcohol is not an anomaly but rather a symptom of a troubled relationship with alcohol. People for whom alcohol represents a continuing criminal risk are generally not deterred by the threat of imprisonment or fines because alcohol has compromised their ability to act rationally in their self-interest. Their behavior does not change after they are released from custody. For this small but high-risk group of people, the deterrent features of traditional responses to alcohol-related crime fail to address their heavy alcohol dependence, which is the root cause of their impulsive behavior. Likewise, drug treatment alone—without consequences for failure—is insufficient, as evidenced by the high rate of relapses by participants in such programs.
Round the clock sobriety provides a better path by combining diligent supervision with consistent and fair punishments. The program allows participants to live their lives largely uninterrupted, but places clear protective barriers around their behaviour. Participants must stop drinking and, in return, are allowed to remain in the community, keep their jobs and driver’s licenses, and work for long-term sobriety.
Throughout the duration of the program, participants take regular sobriety checks. Sobriety check mechanisms vary by jurisdiction, but in general, participants must undergo twice-daily checks, typically performed at the local law enforcement office via an alcohol analyzer. When there is a distance or other extenuating circumstances, remote devices can be used. In other cases, participants wear a “continuous alcohol monitor” with an ankle monitor or other device.
If a test detects the presence of alcohol, the participant is immediately booked into the local jail, but for a very brief period, such as one to two days. This contrasts with traditional approaches, which either forgive failed tests (encourage rule-breaking) or impose severe penalties that fail to correct behavior while disrupting family ties and job stability. On the other hand, 24/7 sobriety relies on quick, assured, and fair punishments that are uncomfortable but not destructive.
For example, short periods in prison were not found to disrupt job stability. Most importantly, the credible threat of “quick confinement” improves behavior. While some 24/7 participants are violating the program’s rules, less than 10 percent fail twice, and 99 percent of the breathalyzers ingested come back negative. Participants also spend less time behind bars than did people who were imprisoned as an initial punishment or after the removal of supervision.
The length of each 24/7 sobriety program varies by jurisdiction and is usually at the discretion of the judge, who can reduce the commitment of participants who show evidence of success. The 24/7 moderation program doesn’t require treatment or a long and cumbersome list of supervision requirements. Participants are allowed maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives – besides alcohol consumption. By enforcing sobriety, and nothing but sobriety, the program allows people with chronic alcohol misuse to gain perspective while choosing the best path toward responsible behavior.
Strong evidence base
24/7 sobriety was a pioneer in South Dakota in 2005. An evaluation found a 12 percent decrease in DUI arrests in jurisdictions that have adopted the program. Later, judges applied the program to other alcohol-related offenses. The same evaluation found that the program was associated with a 9 percent reduction in domestic violence arrests, and even a 4.2 percent reduction in all-cause deaths.
The 24/7 sobriety soon spread to North Dakota and Montana. Researchers found that in North Dakota, only 8.5 percent of 24/7 sobriety participants returned abuse within three years after participating in the program. Participants were 30 percent less likely to reoffend after two months in the program than subjects under standard supervision. After two years, the chance of them occurring was 40 percent lower. Additionally, the program reduced total DUIs in 24/7 sobriety powers by 9 percent.
Montana implemented a 24/7 sobriety system in 2009. Like Dakota, the state has an extremely high rate of alcohol abuse. For example, more than 13 percent of deaths among working-age adults in the state are attributable to poor driving. By 2013, the program reduced the likelihood of re-arrest for a DUI compared to other people convicted on their DUI by 80 percent.
Many other states and some intrastate counties have since embraced 24/7 sobriety. Some, including Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, have passed laws to create these programs. Others, including Illinois, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, and West Virginia, have considered legislation to create 24/7 sobriety programs or have such legislation pending.
Law enforcement, courts, and lawyers have always championed sobriety 24/7. Congress must act quickly to pass the SOBER Act to help set up 24/7 sobriety programs where they don’t yet exist and expand them where they do exist. The bill’s total investment represents a small portion of the annual cost of alcohol-related crime and is likely to reduce long-term federal spending. Most importantly, the SOBER Act will save thousands of lives.
The SOBER Act will create a new grant within the Federal Office of Justice Programs and allow for $50 million to be allocated each year for five years, for a total potential appropriation of $250 million. Specifically, SOBER’s law would:
- Provide funding to help sustain and expand existing 24/7 moderation programs;
- Stimulating the creation of sobriety programs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; And the
- Provide data from beneficiaries and a report from the National Institute of Journalists to assess the impact of 24/7 moderation programs on violence, crime, recidivism, and incarceration.
The total annual appropriations authorized under this legislation represents less than 0.06 percent of the estimated annual cost of offenses attributable to alcohol. Because the program successfully stimulates compliance with supervisory rules, it reduces costs for corrections by reducing crime. Those big savings will pay for the SOBER Act and then some others, which is exactly what has happened in states that have implemented 24/7 sobriety programs. For example, in South Dakota, investing $400,000 in a 24/7 statewide sobriety program saved at least $28 million in prison costs. This translates to savings of $70 for every dollar spent.
The SOBER Act is responsible legislation that will reduce crime and violence, reduce incarceration, save thousands of lives, and improve the quality of life for countless Americans. The bill is supported by the National Mayors’ Association and the Association of Major City Mayors. It’s exactly the kind of smart and responsible legislation Americans want. We thank Representative Dusty Johnson and the bipartisan sponsors of the bill, and urge Congress to act quickly and pass this fine bill.
Super Law Resources
Press Release: The Niskanen Center Commends the US House of Representatives Introducing the SOBER Act
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Podcast: Greg Midget appears on the likely reason to discuss 24/7 sobriety tests