A New Technology to Reduce Alcohol-Involved Criminal Offending

A new technology to monitor alcohol-involved offenders is a step forward, but still imperfect

States have adopted different approaches to reducing recidivism by intoxicated drivers. Some employ ignition interlocks that prevent an offender’s car from starting if the person in the driver’s seat fails an inbuilt breathalyzer test. Others have adopted 24/7 Sobriety, which requires offenders to appear in person twice a day and be breathalyzed.

Mark Kleiman and I have highlighted the evidence that 24/7 Sobriety both makes the roads safer as well as reduces other types of alcohol-related crime. Ignition interlocks have much weaker evidence of success. This could be in part because all one has to do to evade an interlock is drive someone else’s car, whereas an in-person test is pretty much impossible to fake given that the staff who administer the in person breath tests know the offenders personally. Ignition interlocks are also more constrained in their scope: 24/7 Sobriety can be employed for any alcohol-related crime whereas interlocks only make sense when the crime is driving under the influence.

Enter a new technology that brings to interlock some of the benefits of 24/7 Sobriety:

The ignition interlock system is equipped with a camera to detect if someone other than the offender is testing and a GPS to pinpoint the offender’s location on a map for each test. The offender must test twice a day, whether or not he or she drives the vehicle that day.

The pilot test results from 119 offenders are impressive: 99.5% success over more than 100,000 breath tests. However — and it’s a big however — preventing recidivism in this population depends on a knowable, swift, certain and modest response to breaches of alcohol-abstinence orders. In traditional 24/7 sobriety, this is easily done because the offender is right in front of the police and can be arrested and jailed for one night immediately. But what, practically, can the police do if someone with the interlock “blows hot” in an automobile that is parked 100 miles away?

One might say that the 99.5% success rate in the pilot study proves this is a minor concern. But the pilot study rode on the credibility of the much larger, longer running 24/7 Sobriety program in South Dakota, which everyone knows responds immediately to breaches. If a different state started with this new technology, they would need an upfront commitment of police resources to immediately arrest faraway offenders who test positive for alcohol. If that were not done, the program would get a reputation for inconsistency and lassitude among offenders, which has been the kiss of death for effective community supervision in much of the country.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

18 thoughts on “A New Technology to Reduce Alcohol-Involved Criminal Offending”

  1. We have a sort of baseline of assuming that people either are, or are not, fully competent and responsible for their actions. This is often wrong: some people can do reasonably well in their daily affairs if they are not tempted by strong drink, or oxycontin, or thirteen-year-old girls, or fast-talking salesmen. “Knowable, swift, certain, modest…” consequences for falling off the wagon can keep a lot of lives from going off the rails. There’s a spectrum here from nudges to save for retirement to compulsory breath testing and orders not to live near schools, etc.

    Mark Kleiman’s elegy for food stamps is in this spectrum, too – we want to help poor families. We give them a sort of parallel money: something which can be spent on food for the kids, and which cannot be spent on vodka.

    1. Yes. It is also true that people change in the judgments when they consume drugs. There was a recent study showing that people who are strongly averse to drunk driving become more tolerant of it when…they have had a few drinks.

      1. I think on this one you are right. I am horrified of the stories I have heard from my parents’ generation about how leniently drunk driving was treated. People are operating deadly machinery, deadly to OTHERS, and they are seriously impaired.

        I don’t support EVERY drunk driving policy– for instance, I don’t think it was the federal government’s business to force states to raise their drinking ages, and 0.08 is too low; the people responsible for most of the drunk driving deaths have much higher BAL’s. And the zero tolerance for teenage drinking and driving policies are completely stupid, a product of the fact that teenagers can’t vote and therefore politicians will impose restrictions on them that would be unacceptable for adults. Finally, I think automatic driver’s license suspensions without a hearing are outrageous; cops do lie, a lot, and the harder we make it to take people’s liberties away based on the say-so of dishonest police officers, the better.

        But if you are convicted of driving while seriously drunk, it should be both very costly and there should be some pretty big restrictions on your ability to drive until you prove that you are trustworthy to consistently stay sober when you do it. And Sobriety 24/7 sounds like an appropriate idea.

    2. Money is fungible. If you give people “money” which can only be spent on food, they’re free to spend more money on vodka because they don’t have to spend any of their actual greenbacks on food. Let’s treat poor people like adults and give them money, then let them decide where to spend it. If they spend it in ways that are criminal (public drunkenness, child neglect), we can apply the swift, certain, and mild punishments then.

      1. That’s assuming that they’re not still resource constrained, and that they’re acting entirely in a way we would consider rational. Two things we know from experimental economics and psychology of choice won’t be true. (It’s also assuming that legislators would vote the same amount for direct income support that they vote for nutritional assistance, something else we know not to be true.)

        But all of this ultimately seems to be an argument against cognitive prostheses. We know people are fallible, whether they be drivers with a drinking problem or airline pilots or doctors or accountants. So we put in place rules and methods that make the unwanted behavior — be it taking off without enough fuel or operating on the wrong body part or embezzling — more difficult. Go the other way, and ultimately you’re going to start arguing against alarm clocks as a violation of our inalienable right to suffer the consequences of waking up late.

    1. I don’t know of peer-reviewed literature on this, but HOPE-probation style monitoring and sanctions appear to be working in the field with people who have place-based restrictions on them, e.g., pedophiles not allowed to go near schools, batterers not allowed to go to the home of their wife/girlfriend.

      On the serial comma, let’s not start another British/American English thread!

        1. It would be a misleading name because British newspapers don’t use it but American ones usually do

  2. As for the drunk who blows hot when his car is parked 100 miles from his home, why not send the police from that jurisdiction to pick him up and lock him up overnight?

    1. Better yet, let’s stop calling it “driving”, and therefore “drunk driving”, if he sleeps it off in his car. I never understood that practice.

    2. This presupposes a commitment from those police to devote their resources in that fashion (hence a kay point of my post, this has to be in place in advance for this to work)

  3. The 99.5% success rate is nice, but the real question is………..what happens when the offender no longer is using the device? Remember that these programs tend to be of short duration (only a few months).

    The 24/7 program not only monitors behavior, but is a great deterrent in and of itself because of its design. Offenders report to their local sheriff’s departments twice a day for testing. Thus, they are not only inconvenienced, but exposed to law enforcement regularly. Additionally, sanctions for violating are immediate……..offenders are jailed within minutes if they test positive. I believe that interlock and at-home testing have value (particularly for lower level offenders and those without easy access to testing facilities) IF the results are reported and acted upon swiftly (which may or may not be happening). However, I wouldn’t recommend those methods as alternatives to the more established 24/7 method (the RAND Corporation published a study funded by NIAAA that supports the program’s efficacy. Further, the state’s researcher demonstrated that program participants recidivate at a far lower rate than non-participants for years AFTER leaving the program) if the 24/7 method can be implemented.

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