Could you lose your license to drink?

Drinking ages around the world
Drinking ages around the world

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Story highlights

  • Beau Kilmer writes that alcohol is a "dangerous drug"
  • A South Dakota program creates a credible deterrent threat, he says

Beau Kilmer is co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center and co-author of the forthcoming second edition of "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know." The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Inside the Washington beltway and in state capitols across America, there is growing bipartisan agreement about the need for criminal justice reform.

Republican Newt Gingrich and Democrat Van Jones entered the fray recently with a CNN op-ed about America's failing prison system, joining the chorus for change that includes everyone from the ACLU to the Koch brothers. But if America is going to get serious about decreasing incarceration and crime at the same time, it needs to deal with a dangerous drug inextricably linked with accidents, assaults and death: alcohol.
How? Well, here's a provocative but potentially transformative idea: If your alcohol use causes you to behave in a way that threatens public health and public safety, let's suspend your license to drink.
    In the United States, everyone gets an unconditional license to purchase and consume as much alcohol as they want when they turn 21. If someone repeatedly drives recklessly and gets caught, their license to drive can be suspended or revoked. Shouldn't a similar approach be taken for reckless alcohol use?
    The idea isn't as farfetched as it might sound. South Dakota, for example, has already tried suspending the "license to drink" for more than 30,000 alcohol-involved offenders -- with dramatic results.
    True, many jurisdictions throughout the country order repeat drunken drivers and other alcohol-involved offenders to abstain from alcohol as a condition of bond or probation, but this approach is difficult to enforce since alcohol passes through the body so quickly. What's different about South Dakota's approach, known as 24/7 Sobriety, is that they are vigilant about enforcing the abstinence order, combining frequent testing with swift, certain and fair sanctions for those who fail or miss a test.
    Here's how it works: Most people in 24/7 Sobriety show up to the testing facility -- often the Sheriff's Office -- once in the morning and again in the evening to blow into a breathalyzer every single day. If any alcohol is detected, then that person is immediately taken to jail for a brief stay, typically a day or two. Other 24/7 Sobriety participants are required to wear a monitoring bracelet, which tests their sweat for alcohol multiple times throughout the day.
    Since the program started in 2005, participants in South Dakota have accumulated more than 5 million days without a detected alcohol violation. About half of the participants never skip or fail a test, and more than 99% of the scheduled breathalyzer tests are taken and passed.
    Since 24/7 Sobriety was implemented in different counties at different times, it provided a unique research opportunity. Along with my RAND colleagues, and with funding support from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, I examined what happened to arrests for repeat drunken driving and domestic violence after 24/7 was fully operational in a county. We found that 24/7 Sobriety implementation was associated with a 12% reduction in arrests for repeat drunken driving and a 9% reduction in domestic violence arrests at the county level.
    Largely based on these findings, the U.S. Department of Justice recently designated 24/7 Sobriety a promising program in its evidence-based practices portal, CrimeSolutions.gov.
    The program reduces heavy drinking and associated crime by creating a credible deterrent threat. Unlike the traditional approach to criminal justice, 24/7 Sobriety focuses on the certainty and swiftness of the sanction instead of the severity. While the South Dakota scheme uses a very short jail stay as the punishment, other sanctions may yield similar results. The key is for them to be swift, certain and known in advance. The program could also be augmented with positive incentives for compliance.
    Can 24/7 Sobriety work outside of South Dakota? While it has been implemented on a large scale in North Dakota and Montana, there are still questions about whether it can work in more urban areas, with heterogeneous populations. But the bottom line is that we won't know unless we experiment with some pilot programs.
    Ultimately, criminal justice reform is not only about marshaling support for change from across the political spectrum. It is also requires creating demand for bold ideas about simultaneously reducing incarceration and crime. And, given the prominent role alcohol plays in crime -- and the strong results coming from South Dakota -- suspending one's "license to drink" seems well worth considering.