The 24/7 Sobriety program keeps about 70 people out of the Yellowstone County jail every day.
While county leaders struggle to accommodate a growing inmate population in the overcrowded detention center, they are using various innovative tools to help ensure that only people who really need to be in jail stay there. The 24/7 program has proven to be one of the most useful tools.
Judges have authority to require participation in alcohol breath testing or continuous monitoring as a condition of releasing repeat DUI offenders from jail. The twice-daily breath testing can be required of individuals who have been convicted of DUI and arrested or convicted again.
In Yellowstone County, 99 percent of those breath tests have been negative, according to Sheriff’s Office data. The other two dozen or so counties with 24/7 Sobriety programs have reported similar successes.
Testing repeat offenders
The testing holds people with prior convictions accountable for abstaining from alcohol as ordered by the court. The individuals are required to pay $2 per test, so there is no additional cost to the taxpayer. The program actually saves taxpayer money because participants aren’t in jail.
With these public safety benefits in mind, it is gratifying to see that Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, Montana Highway Patrol Col. Tom Butler, Cascade County Attorney John Parker, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder and several more Montana law enforcement leaders signed a letter supporting 24/7 earlier this summer.
“The simplicity of the program, coupled with swift and certain consequences for noncompliant events, drives better behavior and outcomes,” they wrote. “A participant is required to show up at a test site twice a day, approximately 12 hours apart, and submit to a breath alcohol test. It the participant blows clean, he or she continues their day. If the participant blows hot, he or she is immediately taken into custody and is then brought before the judge.”
Speak up for sobriety
Unfortunately, the recipient didn’t appreciate this letter. As reported by The Missoulian, District Judge James Wheelis of Libby responded by filing an order banning all of the signatories from ever contacting him about 24/7. Wheelis threatened to hold them in contempt of court and to file a complaint with the Montana bar if any of them tried to contact him again.
Earlier this year, Wheelis ruled that 24/7 is unconstitutional. He ruled in the case of a Libby man, Robert Spady, whose DUI charge eventually was dismissed in Lincoln County after he had participated in 24/7 and had been held in contempt by another judge for failing to take three breath tests. As noted in a February Gazette opinion, Wheelis could have decided this unusual case in Spady’s favor, based on Montana statutes. However, the judge also took it upon himself to declare 24/7 Sobriety unconstitutional.
Fortunately, Wheelis’ ruling only applies to Lincoln County. The 24/7 program is working well in Yellowstone, Lewis & Clark, Sweet Grass, Custer, Flathead, Deer Lodge and other counties. The Montana Supreme Court will review the case and should uphold the 24/7 law.
Montanans should know what Wheelis doesn’t want to hear: This good law is keeping DUI offenders sober – and out of jail.