Our View: Alcohol sensors make a sobering, constant companion

In Alaska’s long struggle with alcohol misuse, we’ve learned that we need to confront the problem on multiple fronts — education, treatment and counseling, tough enforcement and effective alternatives to jail time.

For repeat DUI offenders, being married to a 24/7 Breathalyzer covers several of those fronts.

That’s the message in Kyle Hopkins’ Jan. 5 story “Aid to sobriety,” which examines the effectiveness of alcohol testing machines in keeping offenders on the straight and narrow.

The story focused on Larry Berg, awaiting trial on his fourth drunken driving charge. When the machine’s siren sounds at his Anchorage home, Berg has just minutes to blow into a plastic tube. If he blows clean, he keeps a measure of freedom and his livelihood. If he blows positive — or skips a test — he gets a house call and goes directly to jail.

This monitoring is constant, and, if a bill proposed by Sen. John Coghill becomes law, will become widespread throughout Alaska. Similar measures have proven effective in other states. The need to test twice a day, or even more frequently, is a regimen difficult to game and a structure that alcohol misusers need.

Further, it keeps offenders out of expensive jail care and places the cost of testing on them. It makes economic sense, and evidence suggests it’s more effective than prison time in keeping people sober.

It’s not just DUI offenders that the 24/7 monitor can change. People convicted of child neglect and domestic violence fueled by alcohol may have a better chance to turn their lives around and keep their families with such relentless help.

Coghill’s proposal is a work in progress likely to be refined in legislative hearings. But so far he’s won bipartisan support for measures like required monitoring for two-time DUI offenders as a way to stay out of jail or even have limited driving privileges provided they stay sober.

Staying out of jail or keeping custody of your children is a powerful incentive to stay sober — as is building a record of sobriety and rehabilitation while awaiting trial. And the offenders know that behind that monitor, the state keeps the hammer of hard justice close at hand.

Putting testing centers in villages may take more time and money but we shouldn’t let that delay expansion of the program in Alaska’s cities. Coghill’s bill to widen its use is good work.

The machines will be well worth the cost if they make Alaska a little more sober.

BOTTOM LINE: 24/7 Breathalyzers make sense for repeat DUI offenders and other alcohol misusers who break the law.

Originally published January 9, 2014 by ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS in Anchorage Daily News.