A pilot program to hold repeat drunk driving offenders more accountable has received outstanding results, according to law enforcement officials.
The 24/7 Sobriety Program boasts a 99.9 percent success rate in Lewis and Clark County. The pilot program began in May, and since then about 5,000 breath tests have been conducted with just 22 of those failing. A total of 26 people have completed the program so far.
In the program, those arrested for a second or subsequent DUI who post bond are required to submit a breath test twice a day, every day, once in the morning and once at night. If an offender fails a breath test or does not show up for a test, the offender’s bond is immediately revoked and he or she is taken directly to jail. A judge then can decide how long the person must remain behind bars and also raise the bond amount.
“The nice thing about this and why we set up the pilot is that it is a low-cost solution to an issue in all of our communities,” Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock said.
Bullock said his staff is working on legislation to implement the program statewide after seeing the success it has had in Lewis and Clark County. The program involves state, county and city agencies working together.
Mike Menahan, a Helena state legislator and Lewis and Clark County deputy attorney, said he strongly supports of the program.
“We’re demonstrating that we have the infrastructure to make this work in Montana,” he said. “We wanted to try this here to demonstrate it would work here and I think we’ve done that.”
The program currently has 28 participants. Testing is performed at the jail and the Helena Prerelease Center.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said two of the main goals of the program — to reduce the population of inmates and the number of drunk drivers on the road — are being met.
“It is designed to change behaviors. It impacts them twice a day,” Dutton said.
With the program, participants are able to keep their job and stay in the community.
Dutton said the program also is a winner because it saves taxpayer money. Those who are tested ultimately pay for the program with a $2 charge each test. The alternative would be about $100 a day of taxpayer dollars to house the participants in jail, he said. An accounting technician with the Sheriff’s Office oversees the program. Part of her salary is paid through the $2 test fees, Dutton said.
William Greene, one of the 24/7 Program participants, is admittedly indifferent to the program.
“It’s the law — you can’t argue with it,” he said while waiting to get tested Wednesday night.
Greene, 59, was arrested for his seventh DUI in August and is awaiting a March trial for felony DUI.
In order to make it to the jail twice a day for testing, Greene has moved from the Helena Valley into the city limits. DUI offenders have their licenses taken away so it is sometimes difficult to find rides twice a day.
“It’s hard for people who live out of town,” he said.
Those who live in outlying areas like Lincoln and Augusta can use an alcohol-monitoring bracelet in place of the two-a-day breath testing. Those using the bracelets pay $6 per day for the program. There are currently nine people utilizing this option.
While $4 per day doesn’t seem like much, when you look at it as $120 a month, it adds up quickly, Greene said. But, in the long run, it’s worth it.
“As long as the money goes to a good cause, it is working,” he said.
Helena Municipal Court Judge Bob Wood admitted he was a bit skeptical of the program when it was first introduced because he was afraid it might infringe on due process rights. He has since become a fan.
Wood said every case is different, so the level of inconvenience varies. If someone fails the test, Wood can raise the bond.
“The more you fail, the harder we’re going to make it on you or the harder you’re making this on yourself,” he said.
Wood said in his experience thus far, most participants who fail the breath test only do so once.
Helena Police Chief Troy McGee said while he thinks 24/7 Sobriety is beneficial, it is too early to tell if the program has impacted the number of DUIs.
“One thing it has really brought to attention is the people who just can’t quit drinking,” he said.
McGee said the agencies involved in the program meet periodically to discuss its progress. There has been no time limit set in the pilot program.
The 24/7 concept began in South Dakota as a pilot in 2005. Since then, it has gone statewide there and has administered more than 2.9 million tests to nearly 12,000 offenders. Participants in South Dakota have shown up and blown a clean test 99.6 percent of the time.
Earlier this year, officials, including Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher, traveled to South Dakota to see the program in action.
“We needed to try something different,” Gallagher said, adding that offenders needed an immediate consequence.
He said he was impressed with the program and especially with the results.
“This is the first time multiple DUI offenders are being monitored this closely,” Gallagher said.
Previously, those who have been convicted of a misdemeanor DUI are not supposed to drink, but until now, there was no way for judges to know if this was happening unless the person got caught committing another crime.
Although judges frequently require repeat DUI offenders to abstain drinking alcohol as a condition of bond, there was nothing in place to ensure compliance.
Felony DUI offenders have probation officers, but those convicted of their first, second and third DUIs are not subject to probation, he said.
Deputy Helena City Attorney Luke Berger said that because it’s a fledgling program here, the results have not had as much of an impact as those in South Dakota, where thousands of people participate.
“I think it’s a great program. Once it gets going, I think we will see the same numbers as in South Dakota,” he said. “I think a year from now, we’ll have great success. We’re still working with it and I think it’s doing great so far and I would like to see it continue.”
Reporter Angela Brandt:
447-4078 or angela.