Every morning and every night, the toaster-sized Breathalyzer in Larry Berg’s Sand Lake bedroom shrieks for attention.
“WEEEEE-OH! WEEEEE-OH! WEEEEE-OH!”
A former UPS delivery driver who estimates he has driven drunk 1,000 times in his lifetime, Berg is awaiting trial on his fourth drunken-driving charge. When the siren sounds, he has just minutes to blow into a plastic tube to prove he hasn’t been drinking.
If he ignores the test, or the gadget detects liquor on his breath, it’s back to jail for the 53-year-old Anchorage grandfather.
Testing problem drinkers at least twice a day for alcohol while they are free on bail is a new and growing approach to fighting booze-fueled crime in the United States. Known as “24/7 Sobriety,” it was pioneered in other hard-drinking states like Montana and the Dakotas and is now poised for widespread use in Alaska.
Some people, like Berg, will pay hundreds of dollars a month to install alcohol sensors in their homes. The state expects most will visit central testing sites every 12 hours, paying $1 to $2 per test.
Beginning this month:
• The state Health Department plans to spend $300,000 on software and testing services to launch daily alcohol testing for an estimated 300 people in Anchorage and 100 or more in Fairbanks.
• Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, will propose a law to allow people convicted of a third DUI to avoid losing their driver’s license for life if they succeed in a 24/7 Sobriety program. Participants might be able to get a conditional driver’s license while on the program to drive to work or an alcohol testing site.
• In Fairbanks, where some judges have long advocated use of the daily Breathalyzer testing program, the area court system on Wednesday launched a $40,000 test program for pre-trial defendants and others.
“This may be one way of holding people accountable and still being productive in their life,” Coghill said.
The South Dakota Justice Department found that drivers accused of their second DUI were half as likely to get another drunken-driving charge within three years if they participated in daily testing.
Similar small-scale programs have been tested in Alaska over the past two years, and more than 50 Anchorage residents are already blowing into a Breathalyzer every day to stay out of jail while on bail. For Berg, daily alcohol testing has allowed him to earn money installing commercial windows while waiting for his court case. Instead of sleeping in a cell, he rides the bus from work to a tidy, two-bedroom home draped in Christmas lights.
When he stays away from booze, life is simple. “I’m a good driver,” he said, eyes wet. “I’m just a bad drinker.”
Berg sat at his kitchen table Tuesday in a pair of fleece salmon-pattern pajamas, the street still dark outside when the Breathalyzer alarm sounded at 6:33 a.m. Berg padded across the house, his fiancee asleep in another room.
The simple black sensor sits on his dresser between a snowmachine racing trophy and flat-screen TV. As he blew into the plastic tube the black device flashed, snapping a grainy picture of Berg’s face, his identity verified by facial recognition software. He will repeat the routine when he gets home from work and every hour until he goes to bed.
“When he’s sober he’s fine”
Searching for ways to keep people convicted of drunken driving from repeating the crime when released from jail, South Dakota’s attorney general launched the 24/7 Sobriety program, the first in the nation, in 2005.
The state’s jail populations shrank in most counties in following years, and the statewide rate for alcohol-related traffic deaths plunged faster than the national average, the attorney general’s office reported. Concurrent changes to DUI laws and extra police patrols also fueled the improvement, according to the state.
The program eventually expanded to include people charged with other alcohol and drug-related crimes, including domestic violence and child neglect.
More than 22 counties in Montana now use the daily alcohol tests. The North Dakota Legislature expanded that state’s 24/7 program last year to make the testing mandatory for people convicted of their second DUI while allowing participants to obtain a temporary driver’s license as long as they stay sober under the program.
A draft version of the bill Coghill plans to introduce in Alaska this month included the same ideas. Coghill said details of the proposal may change as hearings begin in Juneau.
Anchorage tested the 24/7 program in 2011 and 2012, at first focusing on people who hurt family members after drinking. “We kept hearing from victims, ‘When he’s sober he’s fine,” said Assistant Municipal Prosecutor Cynthia Franklin.
Prosecutors found that parents ordered to stay sober as a condition of keeping custody of their kids fared the best. This year, support for the program is growing in Juneau. Democrats and Republicans alike are pushing for the daily testing, Coghill said.
Intoximeters, a company that makes 24/7 monitoring software and testing equipment, hired top Alaska lobbyist Wendy Chamberlain for $30,000 in February, according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission.
The state is finalizing a contract to buy the same Intoximeters monitoring software used in South Dakota to target daily alcohol testing for probationers, parolees, parents of neglected children and others accused of liquor-related crimes.
The program will begin in Anchorage and the Fairbanks North Star Borough but may expand, according to the Health Department. It is expected to eventually pay for itself as clients cover the cost of their own Breathalyzer tests, said Tony Piper, program manager for the state Alcohol Safety Action Program.
The Corrections Department is considering the testing for people who are out of prison on probation or parole but violated the conditions of their release by using alcohol or drugs.
Alaska’s prison population has grown at more than eight times the rate of the general state population since 1971, with the cost of housing an inmate now topping $147 per day.
“We want to look at other sanctions. Other ways that we can help people stay successful,” said Deputy Commissioner Ron Taylor.
Alaska Pretrial Services plans to open three testing sites in Anchorage by the end of the year, with 200 to 300 people participating in the program by April.
Still, daily testing alone isn’t enough. One key to the program’s success is providing swift punishment if someone breaks the rules and drinks, said Intoximeters chief executive Rankine Forrester.
Berg broke his pledge to stay away from booze late one night in September, drinking box wine he found among his salmon fishing gear. The next morning he missed a Breathalyzer test and Alaska Pretrial Services came to his house to get him.
He spent the next six weeks in jail for drinking two glasses of wine, he said.
While Berg pays to have an alcohol sensor installed in his home, other participants visit testing sites twice a day. That requirement raises questions about the program’s usefulness in far-flung villages where there might be no police to arrest people who violate court orders to stay sober.
Alaska Pretrial Services state program director Dennis Johnson said he has talked with the Tanana Chiefs Conference, the tribal coalition of 42 Interior villages, about providing the testing in some villages with the help of local police or VPSOs.
Copies of the autobiography of Dog the Bounty Hunter — “You Can Run But You Can’t Hide” — line the shelves in Johnson’s apartment-sized office in Muldoon. Mugshots paper the walls.
The company monitors people released on bail wearing ankle monitors to track their whereabouts. Increasingly, they provide daily alcohol-testing including 58 people now awaiting trial in Anchorage and three in Fairbanks.
Among them: Airman Lane Douglas Wyatt, 23, accused of running a red light in East Anchorage early one morning in June and slamming into a car driven by 20-year-old Citari Townes-Sweatt. She was the first of five people killed in drunken-driving accidents in two months, Anchorage police said.
“He has to test six to nine times a day,” Johnson said. Like others accused of serious felony crimes, Wyatt wears an ankle monitor.
On a screen at his desk, Johnson pulled up a map of the city. A purple dot on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, showed the airman’s location in a building off Arctic Warrior Drive. The satellite tracking is accurate within six feet, Johnson said, meaning the company can tell which room in a house someone is in, whether he is moving or standing still, and what floor he is on.
Another of the dots on Johnson’s digital city map is Larry Berg. During the day, the computer shows him at Replacement Glass Co. on Arctic Boulevard, or riding with a co-worker to various installation jobs across the city.
Berg took a $6 an hour pay cut when he got his latest DUI, He’s not worth as much to the company if he can’t drive himself to jobs, he said.
One aim of the 24/7 program is to stop drunken drivers from relapsing as soon as they get out of jail.
Berg hasn’t had a valid license for years but that didn’t stop him driving. The last time troopers caught him, in June, he’d left the family cabin for a pack of Marlboro’s.
“You actually don’t really think when you jump in (the car.) ‘You’re fine. You only have a couple of blocks to go,’ ” Berg said.
Twice divorced, Berg said he’s attending Alcoholics Anonymous for the first time and considers himself lucky he never crashed his car or killed anyone when he was drinking.
For now, Berg hops two buses on his way to work. On the way home he walks past the American Legion hall. Chilkoot Charlie’s. A liquor store. Places he used to drink.
The bars don’t haunt him, he insists. “I’m not even going to pretend I could pick up a beer or a glass of wine. … The last time I had a drink, Mr. Johnson came and took me to jail.”
But with a court date later this month in Palmer, the thought of returning to prison is never far from his mind. Under Alaska sentencing laws, among the toughest in the nation for drunken driving, he could get a $10,000 fine plus two years behind bars.
“Most people in there talk about how they can’t wait to get out to go get hammered,” he said.
Originally published January 4, 2014 by KYLE HOPKINS in Anchorage Daily News.