Three Misunderstandings about 24/7 Sobriety for Alcohol-Involved Offenders

Mark Kleiman and I have written extensively about how 24/7 Sobriety and similar programs (e.g., HOPE Probation) have good evidence of reducing crime, imprisonment and drug use. Last week, The Greater London Authority launched a pilot of 24/7 Sobriety for binge drinking criminal offenders. The level of media and public interest in the launch was extraordinary, which to me suggests that many Britons are understandably fed up with alcohol-related violence and disorder in their communities. The media got most of the details right, but not all of them. Let me therefore now make three important clarifications:

1. Alcohol-sensing technology is not by itself 24/7 sobriety. The media focused very heavily on the fascinating technology involved in the alcohol-sensing bracelets that offenders will wear. But 24/7 sobriety doesn’t even require the alcohol-sensing bracelets. Indeed, most of its implementation in South Dakota was done via twice a day in person breathalyzation. Detecting alcohol use is essential for 24/7 sobriety to work but the heart of the program is the criminal justice system responding swiftly and certainly when drinking occurs.

Nick Herbert, MP, who helped us get the 24/7 sobriety law passed when he was Minister for Justice and Policing, puts his finger on the principal challenge the pilot will face:

The key principle in disposals like this is certainty: offenders need to know that a breach will result in instant and decisive penalty. Our criminal justice system resists such practice.

A combination of British law, British habits and British bureaucracy often produces a leisurely approach to responding to misbehavior by offenders under supervision, which is a barrier to changing their behavior. Alcohol-sensing technology, by itself, can’t solve that problem, which requires concerted effort at reform by judges, police and elected officials.

2. 24/7 Sobriety is not a threat to human freedom. A few columnists penned some hysterical articles arguing that government using technology to know when people drink is a harbinger of an Orwellian future. It is hard to be completely wrong, but these critics are up to the challenge. If not for programs like 24/7 sobriety the government would send many of these same offenders to prison. Offenders are infinitely more free living in their communities with an alcohol-sensing tag on than they would be in The Scrubs.

3. I did not invent 24/7 Sobriety. Because I worked closely with the Mayor’s Office and Parliament on the law and did many briefings about the evidence supporting the program, some journalists who covered the launch incorrectly described me as the creator of the program.

As I said in my own piece in the Telegraph, 24/7 Sobriety was invented by Judge Larry Long of South Dakota. Getting the provenance right is not just about giving credit where due, though that is important. The larger point is that 24/7 sobriety is not some ivory tower notion conceived by someone who had never been part of the criminal justice system. Rather, it derived from first-hand knowledge of how the system was failing and what could be done to change it. That’s why it’s far more likely to work than anything I or any other professor would have dreamt up from the armchair.

[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.