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Stanford Medicine

Addiction, Health Policy, Research

Stopping criminal men from drinking reduces domestic violence

Living in London this year on sabbatical, I worked with the Mayor’s Office and Parliament on a law that gave courts the power to sentence alcohol-abusing criminals to a period of mandatory sobriety. The new law was modeled on the successful “24/7 sobriety” program in South Dakota, which requires convicted drunk drivers to submit to twice-a-day breathalyzation.

At the time of the UK law’s passage, some women’s rights activists and politicians expressed concern that what worked with drunk drivers could be counter-productive with binge drinking wife batterers. Thanks to a study released on Friday by researchers at the RAND Corporation, these concerns can be laid to rest: Mandatory sobriety programs reduce both drunk driving and domestic violence.

The RAND research team, led by Beau Kilmer, PhD, exploited the fact that the mandatory sobriety program was initially rolled out slowly across South Dakota (it now operates statewide). This created a natural experiment in which counties that had yet to start their 24/7 sobriety program could be compared to those where the program was up and running. After looking at data on 17,000 offenders from 2005-2010, the researchers found that, as intended and expected, the program reduced repeat drunk driving arrests by 12 percent.

The pleasant surprise of the study was that domestic violence arrests dropped by almost as much as 9 percent. To put that figure in human terms, consider that even conservative estimates (link to .pdf) place the number of American women who are assaulted by an intimate partner at 1 million per year. A 9 percent drop would result in more than 100,000 fewer women being victimized each year, which would be an enormous benefit for women’s rights, health and safety.

How did 24/7 sobriety achieve this remarkable effect?  Part of it is the program’s structure. Any offender who misses a breath test or shows up intoxicated endures a swift and certain consequence (typically, a night in jail).  Faced with an approach that differs starkly from the more traditionally leisurely and unpredictable habits of the criminal justice system, most offenders change their ways. Indeed, over 99 percent of the more than 4 million breathalyzer tests done by the program have been negative.

But another factor is clearly at play. Though heavy drinking has become more common among young women, getting drunk and wreaking havoc remains primarily a young man’s game. In some South Dakota counties, as many as 10 percent of all young adult males have been on 24/7 sobriety.  To quote Dr. Kilmer, “If you get a bunch of problem drinking males aged 18-40 to massively reduce their alcohol consumption, you shouldn’t be surprised to see a reduction” in domestic violence. After all, many a yob who drinks and drives also drinks and beats up his spouse or girlfriend.

Now that the data are in, courts should go forward without fear in applying mandatory sobriety sentences to a broad range of alcohol-involved crimes, including domestic violence. The result will be fewer road deaths, less property damage and less victimization of women.

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

Photo by kraszipeti

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