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The 24/7 Sobriety Program is one of Montana's most effective methods of combating drunken driving. Recent analysis shows that it measurably reduces the rate of repeat arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol. Interestingly, recent data also show that the program may play a role in reducing alcohol- and drug-related traffic crashes, domestic violence and assaults as well.

So it was a relief to see the Montana Supreme Court uphold the constitutionality of the 24/7 Sobriety Program last week, overturning a lower court's ruling that program fees are akin to pretrial punishment. Additionally, the court clarified that participants must be assessed to determine whether they are an appropriate fit before being placed in the program. That certainly seems reasonable.

Currently, judges decide whether to require repeat drunken-driving offenders to enter the program on a case-by-case basis. Only those who have been arrested for driving under the influence more than once may be required to participate in the program, which compels offenders to take a Breathalyzer test twice a day or wear an alcohol monitoring bracelet at all times. Moreover, participants must pay a small fee - typically about $2 - out of their own pockets for each test.

Those who skip a test or fail one - meaning alcohol is shown to be present in their system - are considered to be in contempt of the court's order to abstain from alcohol, and can be sent directly to jail.

However, a March 2015 working paper prepared for the Montana Highway Patrol shows that the vast majority - nearly 96 percent - of the tests administered show no traces of alcohol. Overall, the paper, titled "The Effect of Montana's 24/7 Sobriety Program on DUI Re-arrest," points to a greatly reduced probability of re-arrest for DUI - between 45 percent and 70 percent.

The paper mentions that a recent evaluation of the program in South Dakota found that county-level arrests for repeat drunken driving had decreased by 12 percent. Moreover, arrests for domestic violence dropped by 4 percent, and traffic crashes involving men between the ages of 18 and 40 fell by 4 percent.

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Montana first tested its program in 2010 with a pilot project in Lewis and Clark County modeled after South Dakota's successful approach. In 2011, the Legislature passed a bill allowing the Attorney General's Office to offer the program statewide, and in 2012, the program launched in Missoula County. Now, 34 counties in Montana use the program, and four more are working with the Attorney General's Office to start their own.

Attorney General Tim Fox, whose office defended the program in court, and Gov. Steve Bullock, who played a key role in implementing the program in Montana when he was attorney general, both lauded last week's unanimous ruling. They consider the program a powerful tool to help hold offenders accountable and keep drunk drivers off the roads.

We agree. Let’s keep expanding use of this powerful tool in our state’s ongoing fight against a long-pervasive culture of drinking and driving.

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Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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