SIOUX CITY | Iowa lawmakers are poised to end the legislative session without approving changes that would allow for a jail diversion program being championed by the Woodbury County sheriff.
Sheriff Dave Drew since early 2013 has been lobbying to create a sobriety program that would allow people convicted of alcohol-related offenses to stay out of jail if they get Breathalyzer tests twice a day.
The program, which is in place in several states, including South Dakota, would reduce the jail population and help address alcohol dependence, Drew said. Participants pay for the tests, which are administered by Sheriff’s Office staff for a length of time determined by a judge.
Current Iowa law does not allow the type of tests to be used as a term of probation. Drew wants lawmakers to alter the language.
"The only way we feel this can go forward is some legislative action in Des Moines," he said.
But the proposal hasn’t gained traction. State Rep. Dave Dawson, D-Sioux City, introduced legislation into the $544 million justice system budget bill specifying that testing would meet the standard of probation. The language was struck.
Dawson said police and court officials want clear guidelines that the testing is an option. He said the program makes sense to stem ongoing issues.
"It wouldn't have cost the state or county anything," Dawson said.
The 2014 session is scheduled to end this week.
In South Dakota, 32,533 residents have been tested by the program, called 24/7, from 2005 to March, and 99.2 percent were clean, according to the state Attorney General's Office.
The program also is in place as a pilot program in Plymouth County, Iowa, where three people have been tested a combined 100 times, each paying $2 per test. It started 18 months ago.
Sheriff Mike Van Otterloo supports the jail alternative. He said it helps people stay sober. If someone fails, their jail time is automatically reinstated immediately.
"I just can't help but think that this will be a great tool to use in our justice system," Van Otterloo said.
He said people taking the testing in Plymouth County did so in hopes that they may get a better plea agreement and reduced sentencing. But judges so far haven't done that, as county officials continue to discuss how to fully implement the program regarding sentencing.
In Woodbury County, judges routinely require installation of ignition interlock devices after an alcohol-related conviction. The driver must blow a clean breath sample into the device to start the vehicle.
About two-thirds of Woodbury County Jail inmates have problems with alcohol and drugs. The facility, in downtown Sioux City, also has faced issues with overcrowding and staffing. The program could save tens of thousands of dollars in operating expenses if fewer people are incarcerated, said Drew, who saw the South Dakota program in action last spring in Sioux Falls.
Bill Mickelson, a retired South Dakota deputy attorney general, oversaw that state's 24/7 pilot program in 2005 as well as its later statewide implementation the following year.
He said 61 of 67 South Dakota counties have similar testing and have seen a drop in the number of alcohol-related arrests and vehicle crashes arising from alcohol use and domestic violence.
"What you are after is long-term changes in behavior," Mickelson said. "I strongly recommend 24/7 for any jurisdiction."
Woodbury County Board members indicated support for the new effort during budget talks earlier this year.
Board Chairman George Boykin, of Sioux City, said he's not sure if legislative changes are needed. He said if key judges could be convinced of the benefits, they could direct people to the 24/7 program. Boykin is hopeful something could be in place before the end of the year.
Drew said he’ll continue working to get the program in place.
"There is a better way of doing business,” he said, “and South Dakota has proven it.”