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SD: South Dakota’s 24/7 Alcohol-Testing Program Could go National

SD: South Dakota’s 24/7 Alcohol-Testing Program Could go National

By Stu Whitney South Dakota News Watch
July 21, 2022

A zero-tolerance testing approach to reducing drunken driving and other alcohol-related crimes that started in South Dakota could broaden its reach nationally, despite critics’ concerns that it restricts some participants’ constitutional rights.

The 24/7 Sobriety program, pioneered by former South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long, requires offenders to submit to twice-a-day breathalyzer tests or remote monitoring as a pre-trial bond or sentencing agreement condition. Failure to remain sober means the participant is sent to jail, a no-nonsense doctrine that has coincided with a decrease in DUI and other alcohol-related offenses, according to independent studies.

Johnson noted that those awaiting trial or serving a suspended sentence could maintain employment and be with family if they stay away from alcohol and drugs, which in many cases were a factor in their criminal behavior. Ideally, mental health counseling and other services are part of the recovery process, rather than expecting offenders to “clean up” behind bars.

“I’m amazed at how far South Dakota was ahead,” said Johnson, who didn’t offer a timetable for when the bill might reach the House Judiciary Committee. “Now, most Americans understand that the best way to deal with addiction is not simply to throw someone in prison. Treatment and daily accountability need to be a part of that journey. We’re talking about that every day in (Washington D.C.) now, but South Dakota was talking about it decades ago and put together a pretty robust program with pretty good outcomes.”

Opponents point to civil rights issues

Critics claim those outcomes have come at the cost of constitutional protections for participants, many of whom are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. There are also questions about passing the cost of the program on to participants who might not be able to afford it, in addition to having to pay for attorney fees, fines, mandatory counseling, and other costs associated with their case.

The breathalyzer tests cost $2 a day, while more expensive options — remote breath testing for $5 and SCRAM (Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring) bracelets at $6 a day — allow participants to avoid the twice-daily trip to the county jail or sheriff’s office for testing.

“That’s a luxury that many of our clients can’t afford,” said Traci Smith, who heads the Minnehaha County Public Defender’s Office. Though the program works in some cases to keep people out of jail, Smith said, she’s concerned that expanded use of 24/7 Sobriety makes it a catch-all that supersedes more suitable forms of rehabilitation.

“I do think it’s a good tool, but I don’t know that it’s a universal tool that should replace everything else in the toolbox,” said Smith, who started as a deputy public defender in 1999. “It’s not the same as treatment, and I think sometimes people outside of the treatment world forget that. Everything can’t always fall back on the jail or law enforcement to fix our problems.”