Responsible alcohol consumption is safe and enjoyable, and nearly all alcohol users drink responsibly. At the same time, problematic alcohol use by a relatively small share of drinkers creates enormous social costs. A recent study found destructive alcohol use cost the U.S. nearly $250 billion in 2010 alone.
The most serious cost of problematic drinking is early death. Excessive alcohol use is blamed for around 95,000 deaths every year in the U.S., including around 10,000 from drunk driving. By contrast, around 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2020. Between 1999 and 2017, alcohol-related deaths in the United States more than doubled. Alcohol-related deaths cost Americans nearly 3 million years of potential life every year.
Excessive alcohol use has long been connected to aggression and violence. For example, “immoderate alcohol consumption” is involved in roughly half of all sexual assaults, while the World Health Organization calls problematic alcohol consumption a “major contributor” to intimate partner violence. Notably, alcohol and violence are reciprocally related; alcohol consumption increases aggression, but victimization increases alcohol consumption.
Problematic alcohol use creates significant criminal justice costs and contributes to mass incarceration. A 2016 survey found that one in four federal prisoners and nearly one in three state prisoners reported drinking alcohol at the time of their offense. Per the same survey, 21 percent of state prisoners met the criteria for alcohol use disorder in the year before prison admission. The costs of alcohol-attributable crime measure roughly $84 billion yearly, more than twice the costs of drug-attributable crime.
The SOBER Act is bipartisan federal legislation that would provide states with resources to create or expand “24/7 sobriety” programs, which have been found to reduce criminogenic drinking without imposing costs on responsible alcohol consumers. The bill would save lives, reduce crime and violence, and ease burdens on state and federal corrections systems.
The 24/7 Sobriety Program
24/7 sobriety rests on the idea that some alcohol-attributable criminal behavior is not an anomaly but rather a symptom of a troubled relationship with alcohol. People for whom alcohol is an ongoing criminogenic risk are generally not deterred by the threat of prison or fines because alcohol has compromised their ability to act rationally in their own self-interest. Nor does their behavior change after release from custody. For this small but high-risk group of people, the deterrent features of traditional responses to alcohol-related crime fail to address their severe dependence on alcohol, which is the root cause of their reckless behavior. Similarly, substance abuse treatment alone—without consequences for failure—is insufficient, as demonstrated by the high rate of relapses by participants in such programs.
24/7 sobriety provides a better path by coupling diligent supervision with consistent but fair punishments. The program lets participants live their lives largely uninterrupted, but sets clear guardrails around their behavior. Participants must stop drinking and, in exchange, are allowed to remain in the community, keep their jobs and driver’s licenses, and work toward long-term sobriety.
For the duration of the program, participants undertake regular sobriety checks. The mechanisms for verifying sobriety vary by jurisdiction, but in general, participants must submit to twice-daily checks, typically performed at a local law enforcement office via a breathalyzer device. When distance or other extenuating circumstances exist, remote devices may be used. In other cases, participants wear a “continuous alcohol monitoring” by ankle monitor or other device.
If a test detects alcohol, the participant is remanded immediately to custody in a local jail, but for a very brief period, such as for 1 to 2 days. This contrasts with more traditional approaches, which either forgive failed tests (encouraging rule-breaking) or impose stiff punishments that fail to correct behavior while disrupting family ties and employment stability. 24/7 sobriety, on the other hand, relies on swift, certain, and fair sanctions that are inconvenient but not destructive.
For example, brief jail stays have not been found to disrupt employment stability. Most importantly, the credible threat of “flash incarceration” improves behavior. While some 24/7 sobriety participants violate the program rules, fewer than 10 percent fail twice, and 99 percent of breathalyzers administered come back negative. Participants also spend less time behind bars than people subjected to prison as a primary sentence or after revocation of supervision.
The length of each 24/7 sobriety program varies by jurisdiction and is usually at the discretion of a judge, who can reduce the obligation for participants who show evidence of success. The 24/7 sobriety program does not mandate treatment or a long, burdensome list of supervision conditions. Participants are allowed maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives—besides consumption of alcohol. By enforcing sobriety, and nothing but sobriety, the program allows people who suffer from chronic alcohol misuse to gain perspective while they choose the best path toward responsible behavior.
A Strong Evidence Base
24/7 sobriety was pioneered in South Dakota in 2005. An evaluation found a 12 percent reduction in DUI arrests in jurisdictions that adopted the program. Later, judges applied the program to other alcohol-related offenses. The same evaluation found the program was associated with a 9 percent reduction in domestic violence arrests, and even a 4.2 percent reduction in all-cause mortality.
24/7 sobriety soon spread to North Dakota and Montana. Researchers found that in North Dakota, only 8.5 percent of 24/7 sobriety participants re-offended in three years after program participation. Participants were about 30 percent less likely to reoffend after two months in the program compared to people on standard supervision. At the two-year mark, they were 40 percent less likely. Additionally, the program lowered total DUIs in 24/7 sobriety jurisdictions by 9 percent.
Montana implemented 24/7 sobriety in 2009. Like the Dakotas, the state has an extremely high rate of alcohol abuse; for example, over 13 percent of deaths among working-age adults in the state are attributed to impaired driving. By 2013, the program reduced the probability of rearrest for DUI compared to other people convicted for their second DUI by 80 percent.
Several other states and some counties within states have since adopted 24/7 sobriety. Some, including Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, have passed laws to create these programs. Others, including Illinois, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, and West Virginia have considered legislation to create 24/7 sobriety programs or have such legislation pending.
Law enforcement, courts, and advocates have long championed 24/7 sobriety. Congress should act swiftly to pass the SOBER Act to help set up 24/7 sobriety programs where they do not yet exist and expand them where they do. The bill’s total investment is a fraction of the annual cost of alcohol-related crime and will likely reduce long-term federal spending. More importantly, the SOBER Act will save thousands of lives.
The SOBER Act would create a new grant within the federal Office of Justice Programs and authorize the appropriation of $50 million each year for five years, for a total potential appropriation of $250 million. Specifically, the SOBER Act would:
- Provide funding to help sustain and expand existing 24/7 sobriety programs;
- Incentivize the creation of 24/7 sobriety programs; and
- Provide data from grantees and a report from the NIJ assessing the impact of 24/7 sobriety programs on violence, crime, recidivism, and incarceration.
The total annual appropriation authorized under this legislation represents less than 0.06 percent of the estimated annual cost of alcohol-attributable crime. And because the program successfully incentivizes compliance with supervision rules, it reduces corrections costs by reducing crime. These substantial savings will pay for the cost of the SOBER Act and then some, which is exactly what has happened in states that have implemented 24/7 sobriety programs. For example, in South Dakota, a $400,000 investment in a statewide 24/7 sobriety program led to at least $28 million in savings in jail costs. This translates to $70 saved for every $1 spent.
The SOBER Act is responsible legislation that will reduce crime and violence, reduce incarceration, save thousands of lives, and improve the quality of life for untold numbers of Americans. The bill is supported by the National Sheriffs Association, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, and Prison Fellowship. It is exactly the kind of smart, responsible legislation Americans want. We thank Rep. Dusty Johnson and the bill’s bipartisan co-sponsors, and we urge Congress to act swiftly and pass this good bill.
SOBER Act Resources
Press release: The Niskanen Center applauds U.S. House Introduction of the SOBER Act
One-Pager: Co-sponsor the SOBER Act
Podcast: Greg Midgette appears on Probable Causation to discuss 24/7 sobriety
Photo credit: iStock