The commonplace scenario in the United States when people decide to “get tough” and implement a policy of “zero tolerance” for infractions of the rules is to in practice tolerate the majority of infractions by not catching perpetrators and then hit a minority of violators with extremely harsh sanctions. For years now, Mark Kleiman has been pushing the reverse approach—make sanctions relative mild, but make them swift and nearly certain. He teams up with Kirk Humphreys to describe a version of this that’s led to a sharp reduction in South Dakota’s drunk driving fatalities:
The efforts against drunk driving include checkpoints, steep fines, and Breathalyzer-locked cars. But alcohol-related road deaths have held steady for a decade—except in South Dakota. Under the state’s four-year-old 24/7 Sobriety Project, people convicted of repeated drunk-driving offenses are forced to go dry for at least three months, during which time they submit to police-observed Breathalyzer tests twice a day—no excuses. If they fail, refuse, or no-show, sanctions begin with an immediate night in jail. Now the results are in: drunk–driving fatalities fell from twice the national average, 70, in 2006 to just 34 in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available. And program veterans are half as likely as other DUI offenders to be arrested again.
If you wrestle with any kind of addiction issues in your life, I think the logic of this kind of swift, certain sanctioning should be clear enough. Personally I’m glad that my problems are with cigarettes and don’t threaten anyone’s life other than my own, since Lord knows I’ve slipped up a time or twenty in the past 3 and a half years. But drunk drivers, without really meaning anyone any harm, are a really serious hazard to the general public and it’s very important to do what we can to help them avoid hurting themselves and others.
Humphreys follows up with the observation that part of what’s made South Dakota’s implementation successful is maintaining a respectful attitude to the subjects so they remain inclined to cooperate and non-resentful. That’s as it should be. Sanctions are a crucial element of crime control, but most people involved in dangerous activities are also people wrestling with serious problems that they’d almost certainly prefer not to have.