By Steve Bullock
One year ago, on May 6, 2011, Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed House Bill 106 into law. That law authorized a new program -- the 24/7 Sobriety Program -- and heralded a new attitude toward repeat drunk drivers in Montana. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Steve Lavin, R-Kalispell, a Highway Patrol sergeant who had recently lost two colleagues to drunk drivers.
Under the 24/7 Sobriety Program, anyone arrested for a second or subsequent DUI is required to submit to a breath test, twice a day, every day -- paid for by the offender. If offenders fail a breath test or don't show up to be tested, their bond is immediately revoked and they find themselves sitting in jail, waiting to see a judge.
With the cooperation of local law enforcement, prosecutors and judges, we first introduced the 24/7 program as a pilot project in Lewis and Clark County in May 2010. With that success under our belts, we took the program to the 2011 Legislature, where HB 106 passed with almost unanimous bipartisan support.
In the past, judges in Montana routinely required repeat DUI offenders to stay out of bars and not to drink as conditions of bond -- but we had no effective program to ensure that they complied. Instead, we had examples such as a Jefferson County man, who was drunk when he drove his pickup into a motorcycle and killed a young married couple, leaving behind two young children to be raised by their grandparents. Less than four months later, while out on bond, he was again arrested for driving his girlfriend's car into the ditch, again while driving drunk.
On Oct. 1, 2011, we joined with local sheriffs to roll out 24/7 Sobriety in six counties -- Lewis and Clark, Yellowstone, Custer, Butte-Silver Bow, Flathead and Sanders. In the months since then, 10 additional counties have implemented the program -- Anaconda-Deer Lodge, Beaverhead, Big Horn, Blaine, Broadwater, Gallatin, Lincoln, Powell, Sheridan and Sweet Grass. Together, these 16 counties represent 53 percent of Montana's population.
The sheriffs in another 11 counties are trained and working with my office to get the program under way in their communities: Cascade, Dawson, Fergus, Hill, Judith Basin, Madison, McCone, Mineral, Musselshell, Phillips and Rosebud.
In the seven months since the program began on Oct. 1 last year, 24/7's results have been truly impressive:
* We've administered more than 56,000 breath tests.
* Of these, 55,840 have passed, for a success rate of 99.7 percent.
* Participants "blew hot" in only 183 tests, and missed approximately 1,446 tests (referred to as "no shows").
* Taking these "no shows" into account reduces the success rate statewide to 97.1 percent.
Additionally, 300 participants in the 24/7 Sobriety Program have been monitored on SCRAM bracelets, which test for alcohol every 30 minutes. Since October 2011, more than 1 million readings have been taken (1,032,865) with the overwhelming majority showing no alcohol use. In fact, out of all the tests, there have been only 28 confirmed alcohol events and 97 tampering events.
As we had hoped, in the 16 counties using the 24/7 program, we have for the first time found a way to keep anyone who is arrested for a second or subsequent DUI sober -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That change is leading to very different -- and very encouraging -- results.
We have, for the first time, given judges in those counties an effective way to ensure that repeat DUI offenders really do abstain from using alcohol as required by their conditions of bond.
And we have given offenders a sobering opportunity to take stock of how continuing alcohol abuse is impacting their lives and the lives of those around them.
The 24/7 Sobriety Program works. It is a simple, effective and low-cost way to make a real difference. Offenders, not the taxpayers, cover the cost of administering the program and both the state and counties are poised to save significant amounts of money currently being spent on incarceration.
And thanks to the support of legislators on both sides of the aisle, and to our partnership with local law enforcement and judges, 24/7 is now working across our state to make our roads safer for everyone.
It's a great partnership, and I look forward to working with other Montana communities as the program expands statewide.
Steve Bullock was elected Montana's 20th Attorney General in November 2008.