Breath Tests Help Keep Drinkers out of Jail

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Every day before sunrise, people stream through a nondescript door behind the county jail in South Dakota’s largest city.

Wearing neatly pressed business suits, neon-green construction uniforms or even wrinkled pajamas, they’re all here for the same reason: to prove they’re not drunk.

These are participants in a South Dakota program that aims to reduce drunken driving and domestic violence by requiring offenders to prove twice a day that they have not been drinking.

In return, they stay out of jail.

Bolstered by South Dakota’s success, the approach is gaining momentum. North Dakota and Montana have started similar systems, and at least five more states are running or planning programs. Other states are passing legislation.

South Dakota started the practice in 2005, offering those accused or convicted of an alcohol-related crime an alternative to jail. Participants are required to come to a testing site every morning and evening to blow into a Breathalyzer. Those who live farther away or who have trouble staying sober wear alcohol-monitoring bracelets or have ignition-interlock systems in their vehicles.

Participants who “blow hot” are immediately jailed: 12 hours for the first offense, 24 hours for the second. If they fail a third time, they’re incarcerated until a judge decides their fate.

South Dakota once had one of the nation’s highest rates of DUI arrests, and jail overcrowding was a serious issue. That’s when then-Attorney General Larry Long created the program.

“Simply warehousing people with chronic alcohol and drug offenses doesn’t work. The key is changing behavior,” said former Deputy Attorney General Bill Mickelson, who worked on the program in its infancy.

Participants bear most of the financial burden, typically paying the cost of $1 to $3 for each test.

Over the past decade, more than 37,000 people have participated in the South Dakota program, compiling a pass rate of more than 99 percent.

At the Minnehaha County jail in Sioux Falls, people of all stripes come during a three-hour window. Many stop on their way to work and again on their way home.

“I’ve been drinking for a long time,” said Darryl Nave, a 52-year-old chef dressed in kitchen garb who’s been in the program twice before. “I blew hot a couple times, and then I did realize I can’t lose my job. I’m supporting my family again.”

An independent study released in 2013 by the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization, found that South Dakota’s program cut the rate of repeat DUI arrests at the county level by 12 percent and domestic-violence offenses by 9 percent in its first five years.

Research has found that requiring large numbers of young-to-middle-aged men not to drink, even for a little while, can affect other behaviors, said Beau Kilmer, who conducted the study.

In Montana, the state started pilot programs in 2008 and expanded the system to 36 of its 56 counties. Preliminary research shows recidivism rates dropping by 40 to 70 percent.

One of the pilot programs is in Jacksonville, Fla., where authorities previously used ignition-interlock systems. But studies showed that fewer than half of offenders ever got them installed, choosing instead to drive illegally or not at all.

The program isn’t perfect. Administrators and participants at the Sioux Falls testing site acknowledged that some people still drink by calculating how much they can consume between tests without getting caught, but many are eventually busted.