Douglas County wants to keep closer tabs on drunken drivers.
This fall, law enforcement officials will pilot a program in which repeat DUI offenders will be required to prove their sobriety with twice-daily tests of their blood-alcohol levels.
Fail a test, go to jail. Skip a test, a warrant is issued for your arrest.
The no-nonsense approach, called the 24/7 sobriety program, has shown results in South Dakota, where it was developed in 2005 by Larry Long, then the state's attorney general, now a judge in Sioux Falls.
“The reason we get effective results is the same reason you get results with an electric fence: immediate consequences,” Long said. “It's exactly the same principle.”
Early results were positive — problem drinkers forced to abstain from alcohol committed fewer crimes — and the program caught the attention of attorneys general in neighboring states.
“Larry's like, you've got to come up here and see this,” Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said. So Bruning went for a visit, saw the potential and started looking for a county willing to run a pilot program.
Douglas County showed interest.
Sheriff Tim Dunning brought the idea to a local criminal justice system management council, a group of law enforcement and elected officials from Douglas County and Omaha. A delegation traveled to Sioux Falls to discuss the program with Long and Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead.
They, too, were impressed.
“Douglas obviously is the best place to start, as far as the size and scope,” Bruning said. “I am firmly convinced of the program's efficacy.”
In fact, Douglas County's will be the largest 24/7 pilot to date, said Rankine Forrester, CEO of Intoximeters, one of the program's primary vendors. (At least until Jacksonville, Fla., starts up.)
The details of the pilot are still being ironed out, but the outlines are in place: Judges will have the option of assigning repeat DUI offenders — third offense and above, or aggravated second offense — to the program as a condition of bail. The length of time participants are in the program will vary depending on the conditions a judge sets.
Each participant will take a test twice a day, once in the morning, once at night, at the Criminal Justice Center at 17th and Jackson Streets.
A judge may reduce an offender's bail amount if they agree to participate in the program, Community Corrections Manager Michael Myers said. So if they don't have a license or live far from the jail, they'll have to figure something out.
“If an offender needs a lower bond amount to get out of jail, they may be motivated to make it work,” Myers said.
For offenders with work schedules that preclude twice-daily testing, corrections officials can work out an alternative testing regimen on a case-by-case basis, he said.
The first failure would earn the offender 12 hours in jail. The second time, it's a full day. A third failed test puts them in jail until a judge can see them.
Parking and jail space for people who fail the test shouldn't be a problem, at least not at first, given the limited number of participants, Douglas County Corrections Administrator Mark Foxall said. Myers said there probably won't be more than 200 offenders in the pilot.
The Corrections Department will probably have to hire a few people to administer the program, Foxall said, and there will be a few other startup costs. But offenders will pay $2 per test, and the goal is to eventually run the program entirely on user fees.
In the future, it could be expanded to include other crimes in which alcohol abuse plays a role, such as domestic violence, and for post-trial sentencing and probation.
In South Dakota, the program is used in all but five counties and now includes ignition interlock devices. Some 30,700 South Dakotans have been referred to the program, taking 6.29 million tests with a fail rate of less than 1 percent, according to South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley.
The Rand Corp. studied five years of 24/7 data in South Dakota and found a 12 percent drop in repeat DUI cases.
Citing these results, Montana and North Dakota have introduced 24/7 programs of their own, and officials in those states say the program works.
Data for Montana's program are less complete. But early results track with South Dakota's, Lt. Col. Thomas Butler of the Montana Highway Patrol said.
“The United States is not in a position to jail ourselves out of problems,” he said. “This is a program with proven success in South Dakota that I think can be modeled in other jurisdictions.”
Butler would like to expand the program statewide, and Montana officials have met with Rand researchers to discuss a more detailed study focusing on which aspects of the program are most effective.
Though the goal of the 24/7 program is complete sobriety, it can be cheated. In a few cases, offenders have been known to time their drinks so the alcohol burns off before their next test.
Ankle bracelets could be an option for these offenders, Foxall said. And he noted that part of the program's point is to provide structure to chaotic lives — requiring problem drinkers to be up each morning and sober.
“Bottom line, it introduces more accountability for the offender,” Foxall said. “Nothing's foolproof.”