“Drunk Tank” Alternatives?

Right now, in Michigan, if you get arrested drinking and driving, or even just drunk in a public area, you get a night in the “drunk tank”. In addition, you get an arrest record, a brief tour of the criminal justice system, and the likelihood of jail time. But some states are working to change that.

 Houston, Texas recently unveiled their new Houston Center for Sobriety Recovery Center. If an officer finds you stumbling down the road during the wee hours of the morning, instead of a trip to the local jail, you get a ride down to the local Recovery Center. There you get a clean, safe place to sleep it off and exit counseling before you leave to address any substance abuse problems you may be struggling with.

According to Houston’s Mayor, Annise Parker, a large number of people being put in jail were there simply for being drunk and behaving inappropriately. They don’t need jail, she says, they need help. And a criminal record isn’t going to get them that.

 Santa Cruz, California, has recently taken the same approach. Assuming that someone is not charged with any other crimes, they will be taken to the brand new Santa Cruz Recovery Center to sober up. It is what Craig Wilson, a Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy, calls a medical model, not a punitive model.

According to the medical staff who work in these centers, this brief interaction with an intoxicated person could be life saving. They are treated like someone who needs help, not a criminal. Their vitals are monitored, they are kept safe, and given the interventions and counseling that they need.

 Although these “sobering centers” are not available to people who are intoxicated at the time of their arrest for other crimes, like drunk driving or assault, it does indirectly address these problems too. Having the chance to address substance abuse issues before they result in a drunk driving accident could save many lives over time. 

In addition, by eliminating the booking process, police officers are released back to their rounds far more quickly, which means more officers out on the streets where they are needed. Also, there is the fact that hundreds of thousands of dollars will be saved annually by reducing arrests, prosecutions and jail sentences. It is, according to Houston’s Mayor, ” An innovative solution to a costly problem.”


There are sobering centers in larger cities around the country, including Portland, Oregon; Dallas, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas and Seattle, Washington. Currently, Michigan has nothing like this available to people picked up by officers for public drunkenness. But perhaps we could take a page from the books of Santa Cruz and Houston, and learn a thing or two about alternatives to a drunk tank…. What do you think?

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