Can Technology Reduce Alcohol-related Crimes?

States have adopted different approaches to reducing recidivism by intoxicated drivers. Some employ ignition interlocks that prevent an offender’s car from starting if the person in the driver’s seat fails an inbuilt breathalyzer test. Others have adopted 24/7 Sobriety, which requires offenders to appear in person twice a day and be breathalyzed.

Mark Kleiman and I have highlighted the evidence that 24/7 Sobriety both makes the roads safer as well as reduces other types of alcohol-related crime. Ignition interlocks have much weaker evidence of success. This could be in part because all one has to do to evade an interlock is drive someone else’s car, whereas an in-person test is pretty much impossible to fake given that the staff who administer the in person breath tests know the offenders personally. Ignition interlocks are also more constrained in their scope: 24/7 Sobriety can be employed for any alcohol-related crime whereas interlocks only make sense when the crime is driving under the influence.

Enter a new technology, that brings to interlock some of the benefits of 24/7 Sobriety:

The ignition interlock system is equipped with a camera to detect if someone other than the offender is testing and a GPS to pinpoint the offender’s location on a map for each test. The offender must test twice a day, whether or not he or she drives the vehicle that day.

The pilot test results from 119 offenders are impressive: 99.5% success over more than 100,000 breath tests. However — and it’s a big however — preventing recidivism in this population depends on a knowable, swift, certain and modest response to breaches of alcohol-abstinence orders. In traditional 24/7 sobriety, this is easily done because the offender is right in front of the police and can be arrested and jailed for one night immediately. But what, practically, can the police do if someone with the interlock “blows hot” in an automobile that is parked 100 miles away?

One might say that the 99.5% success rate in the pilot study proves this is a minor concern. But the pilot study rode on the credibility of the much larger, longer running 24/7 Sobriety program in South Dakota, which everyone knows responds immediately to breaches. If a different state started with this new technology, they would need an upfront commitment of police resources to immediately arrest faraway offenders who test positive for alcohol. If that were not done, the program would get a reputation for inconsistency and lassitude among offenders, which has been the kiss of death for effective community supervision in much of the country.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.