The Solution: the 24/7 Sobriety Program

There is quite a history behind the 24/7 sobriety concept, from an idea to a test program to a statewide initiative to a fully-developed modular solution that’s now being implemented in the United States and abroad. Real results, based on program data, are driving the expansion.

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An experiment in Bennett County, SD

South Dakota Judge Larry Long, former South Dakota Attorney General, is the pioneer of the 24/7 sobriety program. While working as a prosecutor in Bennett County, SD in the 1970’s, he became increasingly frustrated at seeing offenders arrested repeatedly for DUI and a variety of other offenses that had a nexus to alcohol and drug abuse. Prosecutor Long took steps to address this issue in a way that hadn’t been tried before. Offenders were not put in jail, but were conditioned on a bond to abstain from alcohol use and allowed to continue with their normal activities as long as they showed up on time and passed twice daily alcohol tests. Failure to show up for a test or to pass a test resulted in an immediate and measured response that usually resulted in a short period of incarceration.

The program worked better than anyone expected. The combination of daily testing paired with swift, certain, and measured sanctions kept most offenders sober for the duration of their sentence or probation period and for lengthy periods after release from the sobriety program.

Expansion to a statewide initiative

In 2005, now Attorney General Long of South Dakota implemented a 24/7 sobriety program using concepts he had developed to deal with escalating prison and jail populations. The program was piloted with the goal of implementing the program statewide. It involved a long list of logistical challenges and required buy-in from many who were skeptical that the program would work. Judge Long encountered resistance from those who feared the program would add to rather than reduce existing law enforcement burdens. But again — the results exceeded expectations and made believers of many.

A program that gets to the root of the problem

Judge Long once summed up the escalating DUI situation by saying “the problem isn’t driving, the problem is drinking.” This discerning statement illustrates why so many efforts to combat alcohol and drug-related offenses, particularly DUI, have had very limited results. Criminal justice systems have not adequately addressed the root of the problem: the ABUSE of the impairing substance.

A 24/7 sobriety management program gets right at the heart of this issue with its core requirements of

  • Mandatory daily testing for substance abuse, over a defined period of time
  • Immediate, fair, certain, and swift consequences (usually immediate incarceration) for failing a test or failing to appear for testing.

A statement from the programs creator; Judge Long

“The idea of the 24/7 sobriety program was born out of frustration, mine and others, that we prosecuted the same people over and over, with alcohol and drugs always involved. Clearly, we were not getting at the root of the problem in dealing with these offenders.

When we first proposed this idea, judges were skeptical and prosecutors were skeptical – both certain the result would be to fill up our jails and the court dockets for probation hearings. They became believers when the program proved to be successful for nearly everyone who entered it. It kept people out of jail and reduced the load on the court system and on law enforcement. Over time, judges began using the program for offenses other than DUI. Intoxication (through drugs or alcohol) is an exacerbating factor in many crimes. If you can remove it from the equation, many offenders won’t be a law enforcement problem.

The 24/7 program works like an electric fence works. The punishment is swift, 100% certain, but not severe. And that seems to be why the program is effective. I also think there is a therapeutic effect for offenders involved in a twice-daily program with a community of participants like themselves. They don’t feel singled out and they have others involved daily in addressing their addiction problem.

It’s been gratifying to me to hear from family members of offenders who see a real difference in their son or daughter or spouse as they become sober again and are able to sustain it over time. I believe that the 24/7 sobriety program, which allows us to gather and analyze data related to these repeat offenders, will help us make real strides in the future in balancing punitive and treatment options that can help end the cycle and move people to permanent sobriety.” — Judge Larry Long

Why it works: control the environment, control the behavior

While 24/7 sobriety programs materialized out of a law-enforcement perspective — from the minds of solution-focused individuals like South Dakota’s Judge Larry Long and Hawaii’s Judge Steven Alm — academic researchers and consultants analyzing the success of the programs soon recognized that the core components of:

  • ongoing daily accountability enforced by a drug or alcohol testing regimen; and
  • immediate, measured and swift consequences for failure to comply, usually in the form of short-term incarceration reflect established fundamentals from the world of behavioral science. Twentieth-century behaviorism pioneers, most notably B.F. Skinner, analyzed behavior as an individual’s response to consequences, good and bad, arising out of their environment. They found that by controlling consequences, you can indeed modify behavior.

In a 24/7 sobriety program, the offender participates in a program where alcohol or drug-related behavior is monitored very closely and consequences for program violations are applied immediately. Testing enforces accountability; consequences are swift, measured and sure.

Scheduled alcohol or schedule/random drug testing is mandated for each offender who qualifies to be placed in the program. If the participant fails a test or does not appear for testing, the result is usually the immediate incarceration of the offender. This combination of a strictly monitored no-use standard with swift, certain, and meaningful consequences has proven to be extremely effective.

Unlike many other programs that have been promoted but have failed to live up to the promise of modifying recidivist alcohol and drug abuse behavior, data from theĀ South Dakota program demonstrates that the methodology can produce lasting effects on its participants.

Progress is Possible

24/7 sobriety programs demonstrate that most offenders can abstain from alcohol and drug use if their environment is made intolerant to substance-abuse. The small percentage who fail in this environment self-select for more intensive treatment.

Commenting on the efficacy of the 24/7 Sobriety Management Program, Robert L. Dupont, M.D., President of the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc., concluded:

“The 24/7 Sobriety Project is an important response to critics who erroneously claim that it is not possible to stop offenders from drinking and/or using drugs because they believe relapse is inevitable. This program demonstrates a powerful ability to stop alcohol and drug use and the criminal behavior that alcohol and drug use often lead to among arrested offenders. The program has been extended from DUI offenses to a wide range of criminal charges related to alcohol and drug use, including domestic violence and civil abuse and neglect cases. These changes show the broad applicability of the 24/7 Sobriety Program.”

Benefits of Instituting a 24×7 Sobriety Program

Improved Public Safety

  • Reduces alcohol- and drug-related traffic accidents and fatalities
  • Reduces incidents of other crimes where alcohol and drugs are often an instigating factor
  • Reduces criminal recidivism
  • Improves case management capabilities for probation, parole, and social services

Improved Results for Offenders

  • Provides a highly monitored alternative to incarceration
  • Participant can continue to live with family and remain employed
  • Helps individuals change their behavior and mindset and work toward permanent sobriety

Cost Effective – Saves Taxpayer Dollars

  • Offender-funded program option – the fees paid by offenders can pay for staffing, facility rent, testing equipment and supplies, and data management costs
  • Significantly reduce prison/jail populations
  • Savings for the entire continuum of the criminal justice system

Positive Adjunct to Treatment and Rehabilitation

  • Participants who enter treatment programs when they are alcohol or drug free have improved cognitive abilities and are shown to have a higher success rate than those who enter while still using alcohol or drugs.
  • Can facilitate participants that require additional testing protocols before, during, and after treatment