Mortality Rates Drop When Offenders Submit To Frequent Alcohol Tests

By John Lavitt 02/23/16

The consequences for failed tests are immediate, and increase in severity with multiple failures.

Mortality Rates Drop When Offenders Submit To Frequent Alcohol Tests
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Research funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reveals that criminal justice alcohol programs lead directly to decreased mortality rates. In a South Dakota study, overall deaths dropped by 4.2% community-wide over six years when people were sentenced to the 24/7 Sobriety program. 

A criminal justice sentencing initiative for offenders convicted of alcohol-related offenses, the people in the program not only have to stop drinking, but also are required to submit to frequent alcohol testing. If they fail a test, the swiftly implemented sanctions, although modest at first, increase with severity with multiple failures. The vast majority of people in the program were placed as a result of an arrest and conviction of driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

Conducted by Nancy Nicosia, Ph.D., Beau Kilmer, Ph.D., and Paul Heaton, Ph.D., of the RAND Corporation, the results were published online in The Lancet Psychiatry. Launched in South Dakota in January 2005, the study lasted until June 2011. During that time period, nearly 3% of the state’s adult population—about 17,000 people—participated in 24/7 Sobriety. The largest reductions in the overall mortality rate occurred among women and individuals over 40. Beyond alcohol-related accidents, deaths from circulatory conditions, including heart disease and stroke, declined significantly.

“The study suggests that effective programs for alcohol-involved offenders may have benefits, not only for the participants themselves, but for the community as a whole,” explained George F. Koob, Ph.D., NIAAA director. “If these results are replicated in future studies, it could advance our understanding of how interventions within the criminal justice system can be used to improve public health.”

As part of the 24/7 Sobriety program, people had to submit to twice-a-day breathalyzer tests or wear a continuous alcohol-monitoring bracelet. Although the sanctions were certain and immediate, the sanctions were not extreme at first. For example, subjects who failed or skipped tests received a short jail term, typically one to two days for a failed test. 

An alternate approach to preventing drunk driving, 24/7 Sobriety is being considered as a serious new option. While other criminal justice interventions often focus on separating drinking and driving, this program focused on managing the drinking itself. Technological advances such as remote alcohol monitoring in real time and the ability to transmit data electronically, have opened the door to these new sentencing approaches. 

Analyzing county-level mortality data from 2000 to 2011, researchers made statistical adjustments for several factors, such as county demographics, unemployment rates, snowfall, police per capita, and bars per capita. Surprised at the magnitude of the drop in mortality associated with 24/7 Sobriety, the study authors pointed to the need for additional research to understand the extent of the positive results and other possible underlying causes. Without question, however, the results are truly promising. 

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.