Special Feature: Can the 24/7 Sobriety Project Reduce Problem Drinking and Improve Public Health?
“South Dakota's 24/7 Sobriety Project reduced both repeat DUI and domestic violence arrests at the county level.”
— Beau Kilmer
Alcohol consumption can impose enormous health and safety costs on individuals and society. Problem drinkers account for a disproportionate share of these costs. Although millions of problem drinkers pass through the criminal justice system each year, reducing their alcohol consumption has proven difficult.
South Dakota's innovative 24/7 Sobriety Project requires those arrested for or convicted of alcohol-involved offenses to take twice-a-day breathalyzer tests or wear a continuous alcohol monitoring bracelet. Those who fail or skip their tests are immediately subject to swift, certain but modest sanctions—typically a day or two in jail. After a five-county pilot project, “24/7” quickly grew to cover additional jurisdictions and offenses (e.g., assault).
Although 24/7 has won national awards, received tremendous attention in the domestic and international press, and is now being implemented in other states, evidence of its effectiveness has been largely anecdotal and descriptive. RAND researchers recently published the first peer-reviewed evaluation of whether 24/7 improved public health in South Dakota.
Why 24/7? Have traditional sanctions for problem drinkers come up short?
Courts often require individuals arrested for alcohol-related offenses to refrain from drinking or frequenting bars. However, abstinence is difficult to enforce because alcohol passes through the body quickly. In traditional community corrections settings (e.g., probation and parole), sanctions often occur only after major violations or after a series of minor violations and may not be imposed until weeks or months after the offense. This too is problematic since evidence from neurobiology, psychology, and economics suggests that punishment certainty is a stronger deterrent to criminal activity than punishment severity.
How many South Dakota residents have gone through the 24/7 program?
The number of individuals who have participated in South Dakota's 24/7 Sobriety Project is closely approaching 25,000. RAND's study focused on 2005-2010, when more than 17,000 individuals participated in the program. This is a considerable number given that the state population is approximately 825,000. In some counties more than 10% of males aged 18-40 had participated.
So how effective has 24/7 been?
From 2005 to 2010, program participants took approximately 3.7 million breathalyzer tests. The pass rate exceeded 99%. Including results from continuous alcohol monitoring bracelets, there were approximately 2.25 million days without a detected alcohol violation.
Even more encouraging was RAND's finding that 24/7 is associated with a 12% reduction in repeat DUI arrests at the county level. Finally, while the program does not appear to reduce overall crash rates, evidence suggests modest reductions in traffic crashes among male drivers aged 18-40, the population most likely to participate in 24/7.
How can we put the 12% reduction in repeat DUI arrests into context?
This is somewhat difficult, because most other studies of interventions targeting DUI do not focus specifically on repeat arrests at the county level. However, the following may help put RAND's findings into perspective:
- A 1995 study finds that the implementation of mandatory license suspensions following a DUI arrest in California reduced all DUI arrests by 4%.
- A 1993 study suggests that it would take a 16% increase in alcohol prices to reduce DUI among males by 12%.
Did the program influence arrests for domestic violence?
Yes. Researchers also found a 9% reduction in domestic violence arrests at the county level following adoption of 24/7.
What should future research focus on?
RAND researchers continue to look at how 24/7 influences other county-level outcomes in South Dakota. Researchers will soon have preliminary results from individual-level analyses.
Hopefully these findings will encourage future investment in experimental evaluations that provide further evidence on the causal effects of programs that adopt innovative deterrence approaches. It is critical that researchers study whether 24/7 can work outside South Dakota in both rural and urban areas. It will also be useful to explore how testing programs with swift and certain sanctions can best incorporate positive incentives for compliance as well as treatment services.