Alternatives to Jail for Repeat DWI Offenders

South Dakota, Montana, Florida, and a handful of other states have implemented an alternative program to jail time for repeat DWI offenders. The program focuses on prevention rather than punishment by requiring repeat offenders to report to a testing survey site twice a day to blow into a breathalyzer. As long as they pass, they stay out of jail. If they fail, the consequences are immediate, with varying incarceration penalties.

North Carolina, especially Wake County, is notoriously harsh on DWIs, especially for offenders with multiple DWIs. Would a program like this work in our state? What are the pros and cons?

The Pros:

  • Alternative to jail – Jail is a penalty that does little to deter someone with a problem. However, holding someone accountable to blowing clean twice a day for a relevant period of time, in conjunction with treatment, may be effective in actually changing the underlying behavior resulting in drinking and driving.
  • Cost effective – the cost of this program is far cheaper for the state than the cost of incarceration. In other states, the cost is paid by the offender. It’s also cheaper for the offender in that there aren’t requirements for an interlock device, which can run $1700 per year.
  • In other states where this program is in place, the recidivism rate has drastically decreased.

The Cons:

  • Offenders have to stop at a testing center twice a day – in the morning and the evening. If an appointment is missed, the offender is arrested and serves at least 24 hours in jail, so there is no tolerance for missed appointments.
  • The system can be gamed. Someone can time when they drink so that the alcohol is not detectable between the two daily blows.
  • Anything other than alcohol is not detectable. So if someone is impaired on cocaine or heroine, that is not detectable through a breathalyzer.

Overall, in concept this is a good program. Anything to decrease incarceration rates and get people treatment that helps them not re-offend is helpful. However, like many programs in the criminal courts, this one is slanted against low income offenders. In the other states where this program has been implemented, the cost is born by the offender, but in my opinion, it’s the government imposing the penalty, so the government should pay for it. Otherwise, poor people can’t pay for it, resulting in them being incarcerated. This helps no one. It doesn’t help the offender change his or her behavior, and it costs more for the state to house an inmate.

Will this program come to North Carolina? I think it’s unlikely in the near future. Our legislature is too set on the optics of being tough on crime, rather than implementing programs to help prevent crime to begin with.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.