What Illinois can learn from South Dakota’s innovative drunk-driving punishment

What Illinois can learn from South Dakota’s innovative drunk-driving punishment

South Dakota’s sobriety program is a good model to combat drunk driving; Illinois should adopt it.

Drunk driving remains a serious problem, even though the number of accidents caused by intoxicated drivers has fallen in recent years. In 2012, 41 percent of all traffic fatalities in Illinois were alcohol-related, according to the Illinois secretary of state. This is down from nearly 60 percent 30 years prior.

But to better protect public safety, the state should still be looking for ways to get these numbers down further.

In 2014, there were 1,651 people serving time in Illinois prisons for DUIs, and another 1,441 on parole. If anyone receives a felony sentence for a DUI, that means they’re a repeat offender. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, at least one-third of all drunk-driving accidents involve repeat offenders. How can Illinois target this population in a more effective manner?

One promising reform Illinois could implement has already found success in South Dakota. The 24/7 Sobriety Program, first implemented in 2005, has pioneered a way of making drunk drivers more accountable for their actions and stopping behavior that puts lives at risk.

Here’s how it works: The program requires people arrested or convicted of multiple DUIs to completely abstain from consuming alcohol or drugs. This is enforced through mandatory use of a blood-alcohol level tester twice a day or a SCRAM bracelet, which continuously measures alcohol content in sweat, under the supervision of a law-enforcement officer. Drug patches or urine samples are used to monitor drug offenders. If the offender fails the test or misses an appointment, they’re immediately sent to jail for a day or two.

According to analysis by researchers at the Rand Corporation, a nonpartisan global policy think tank, South Dakota’s program is remarkably effective. Over 99 percent of the tests taken between 2005 and 2010 were negative, which suggests the risk of the sanction was enough to keep offenders from drinking. County-level repeat drunk-driving arrests also fell by 12 percent.

Illinois could explore making participation in such a program mandatory for repeat offenders, in lieu of prison. Right now, the third time someone is convicted of a DUI, they receive a Class 2 felony, which carries a sentence of three to seven years in prison. Under an alternative program, offenders could be required to participate in a 24/7 sobriety program for at least a year, or face the alternative prison sentence.

The 99 percent testing success rate shows that such a program can be effective at reducing drinking and thus avoiding drunk-driving incidents. On the one hand, this would allow offenders to continue employment, remain with their families, and avoid the social costs that come with a prison sentence. It could also save Illinois a substantial amount of money: the Illinois Department of Corrections, or IDOC, spends about $21,600 annually per person in state prison, meaning over $35 million goes towards incarcerating DUI offenders each year. If Illinois just required that offenders stay sober at all times, as a condition of parole, Illinois could save millions while enhancing public safety.

Projects like South Dakota’s show there are innovative ways to make Illinois’ criminal-justice system more cost-effective and enhance public safety at the same time.

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