‘An awakening’: 24/7 sobriety program credited with turning lives around

‘An awakening’: 24/7 sobriety program credited with turning lives around
Paige Ott is shown with the Breathalyzer and ankle monitor used in Douglas County's 24/7 Sobriety Program. Ott, of Fremont, Nebraska, is a graduate of the program, which allowed her to stay out of jail after being arrested for third-offense drunken driving, but required her to report twice a day for sobriety testing. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — Instead of enjoying a cup of coffee, Paige Ott began each morning by blowing into a Breathalyzer machine in downtown Omaha.

And the Fremont woman repeated the chore each evening after she got off of work. Blowing into a tube to prove she was sober, every morning and every night.

The regimen — required of Ott after she was arrested for third-offense drunken driving — is part of a strict sobriety program that officials and participants say has turned lives around and reduced repeat crimes.

The 50-year-old Navy veteran has been sober for nearly a year now. She said the 24/7 Sobriety Program, as it’s called, made her realize that she could live without alcohol and put her life on a healthier, and happier, path.

“It is an awakening,” Ott said. “You’re made accountable for your actions.”

Right now, the 24/7 Sobriety Program is offered only in Douglas and Lancaster Counties in Nebraska as pilot projects, for a limited number of people. But a bill introduced in the Nebraska Legislature could change that.

The proposal, Legislative Bill 335, would standardize the program statewide, which officials hope would allow more counties to start programs. It would also provide an incentive for more people to choose the program, giving those arrested for repeat drunken driving a chance to drive again, while waiting to go to court, if they install an ignition interlock device and enter the 24/7 Sobriety Program. Right now, they have to wait 45 days to drive again.

The bill also allows people who can’t afford an interlock device — which blocks someone from starting a vehicle if they are intoxicated — to enroll in the 24/7 program and obtain driving privileges if they test negative for 30 days.

Douglas County, which has had a 24/7 program for five years, tests only about 50 people each day and night. In Lancaster County, which launched its program a year ago, about 30 people a day are tested.

That pales in comparison to South Dakota, where the 24/7 Sobriety Program was created and has been used aggressively for 14 years. Sixty-one of the state’s 66 counties have programs. In the two largest counties, about 400 people a day line up for testing.

The impact of the program in South Dakota has been impressive, according to a report by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit think tank that studies issues including substance abuse:

  • A 12 percent reduction in repeat drunken driving arrests.
  • A 9 percent reduction in domestic violence cases.
  • A 4 percent reduction in overall mortality rates.

Beau Kilmer, who studied the program for Rand, said the statistics are jaw-dropping. Especially surprising, he said, was the impact on health and crimes other than drunken driving.

“You are suspending someone’s license to drink,” Kilmer said. “Once you reduce their alcohol use, you can imagine having an effect on other outcomes.”

Not everyone is convinced.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is opposing LB 335, as written, because it doesn’t require all 24/7 Sobriety participants to also use ignition interlock devices, and in some cases, it replaces interlocks.

MADD’s national president, Helen Witty, in a recent letter to Nebraska legislators, said interlock devices have stopped drunken drivers from starting vehicles more than 30,000 times since 2009, when it was required of all convicted drunken drivers. It is a more effective deterrent, she said.

“None of (the 24/7 sobriety tests) will actually stop a drunk driver from starting his or her car,” Witty wrote.

But advocates for the 24/7 Sobriety Program say it is a lower-cost alternative, and one that can bring long-term changes. The program works, they say, because there are immediate penalties — a trip to jail for 12 to 48 hours — if a participant tests positive for alcohol.

“This works for the same reason that an electric fence works — if you touch an electric fence, you won’t touch it a second time,” said Larry Long, a retired judge and former South Dakota attorney general who created the program four decades ago.

Long, then a county attorney, started the program in Bennett County, just across the Nebraska border, after noticing that most drunken drivers were repeat offenders and that many assaults, break-ins and other crimes were linked to liquor.

“I also figured out if we could keep them sober, we probably didn’t have to keep them in jail,” he said.

So, Long and the county sheriff began requiring twice-a-day sobriety tests as a condition for second-offense drunken drivers and worse to be released from jail before a court hearing. Amazingly, he said, almost all participants stayed clean. In Douglas County, for instance, only about 1 percent of participants test positive for alcohol, which mirrors the rate in South Dakota.

It’s not 100 percent foolproof, Long said. People could drink and still pass a sobriety test hours later — which was a concern expressed by MADD.

But cheaters will eventually fail a sobriety test, Long and others said. The bottom line, Long said, is that some hard-core drinkers become sober for the first time in decades under the program, and a good portion stay that way.

“We think we have some beneficial long-term effects,” he said.

In South Dakota, 24/7 Sobriety is not only used for repeat drunken drivers, but has been ordered as a condition of pretrial release for other crimes, and is being used in probation and parole to ensure that offenders are keeping clean. Participants can get lower bail, and successful compliance with the program can result in lower fines or jail time.

Besides the twice-a-day testing, which costs $2 a day, people can later opt to wear a CAM (Continuous Alcohol Monitoring) device, worn around the ankle, which costs $6 a day. Drug-monitoring patches are also ordered in some cases.

Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon said not everyone can afford the ignition interlock devices — which cost about $70 a month to rent, plus $150 to install and get a state permit — making the sobriety tests a good alternative.

“There are a lot of benefits to this program,” he said. “It keeps the community safe.”

A hearing on the bill is scheduled Wednesday afternoon before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Civics bill clears committee after lawmakers reach compromise

Civics in action. Nebraska students could learn a civics lesson from the compromise reached to advance a bill revamping the state’s Americanism law. The compromise allowed the formerly controversial Legislative Bill 399 to get out of the Education Committee on an 8-0 vote Tuesday.

As introduced by State Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, the bill would have required all public schools to give students the same civics test that immigrants take for citizenship. The provision was a sticking point for opponents, including the State Board of Education, who said it would infringe on local control and doesn’t represent good teaching.

Under the compromise, districts could choose from among three options: giving the naturalization test, requiring students to go to a government meeting followed by a paper or project, or doing a project or paper and class presentation about a person or events commemorated by selected holidays named in the bill.

The holidays include the birthdays of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., along with Native American Heritage Day, Constitution Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving Day.

The rest of LB 399 would rewrite the state law dealing with civics education. It would call for students to become “competent, responsible, patriotic and civic citizens” with knowledge of “civics, history, economics, financial literacy and geography.”

Title X language. A divided Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday against putting language in their preliminary budget proposal that would bar federal Title X family planning dollars from going to Planned Parenthood.

The decision represents a split with Gov. Pete Ricketts, who included the language in his budget recommendations to the Legislature both last year and this year. Last year, the committee voted to put the governor’s language in its budget, provoking a long, heated debate that slowed approval of the budget.

This year, Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the Appropriations Committee chairman, said the budget promises to be contentious enough without adding to the controversies.

“I’d rather it be a budget fight,” he said. “This needs to be in permanent statute.”

Among other things, the committee’s preliminary budget would boost property tax credits by $51 million a year and fund the governor’s plan for college scholarships targeting high-demand jobs. It also would fund the Medicaid expansion approved by voters in November.

Committee members will revisit their budget decisions in April, after holding public hearings on budget issues and getting an updated forecast of state tax revenues in late February.

Right to Farm. A University of Nebraska law professor testified Tuesday that a proposed legislative bill would rule out the right of neighbors to file any nuisance lawsuits against farming operations.

The state’s current Right to Farm law protects farmers from nuisance lawsuits if their operation existed before a neighbor moved in. But NU law professor Anthony Schutz said that LB 227 goes well beyond that, by barring lawsuits against farms that expand or alter their operations.

State Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango said he introduced the bill to protect farmers because more people are disconnected from farming and don’t understand that it comes with odors, dust and flies.

Farm groups and a representative of the firm developing the poultry barns for the new Costco chicken processing plant testified in favor of the bill. Anxiety was raised in farm country last year after Smithfield Farms, the world’s largest hog producer, lost a $473 million nuisance lawsuit in North Carolina.

Lawmakers in that state reacted by enacting barriers that all but eliminated such legal actions.