Thursday, July 06, 2006

Drinking Bracelets, Just What We Need

Electronic ankle bracelets that instantly detect whether a person has been consuming alcohol are being used increasingly by courts, probation offices and corrections agencies around the state on offenders whose freedom requires sobriety.

The devices, manufactured by Alcohol Monitoring Systems Inc. of Highlands Ranch, Colo., measure blood-alcohol concentration through secretion.

Launched in 2003, there are 5,525 bracelets in use in 36 states, including Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Mark Sutula, a program director for the Clevelandbased Ohio Alcohol Monitoring Systems, said courts and agencies in 16 northern Ohio counties are using the devices.

Judy Nash, community control officer for Rocky River Municipal Court, estimates the Cleveland-area court has used them in 40 to 50 cases.

"For some of our offenders who are really trying to get sober and need that constant monitoring, this is a great tool," Nash said Tuesday. "It’s telling us all the time whether they’re drinking or not."

The devices, called Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitors, or SCRAMs, are usually used on drunken-driving offenders or in domestic-violence cases where alcohol is a factor. The 8-ounce bracelets are placed on the offender’s ankle and worn around the clock.

Designed to be tamperresistant, the devices check for the presence of alcohol at least hourly. Results are transmitted electronically and can be viewed online.

Court officials say the technology enables them to better enforce the no-drinking requirements that are often a condition of sentences or probation. Traces of alcohol can disappear before they can be detected with random testing or other methods, they say.

Tiffin Municipal Judge Mark Repp started assigning use of the bracelets when they first became available several years ago. He estimates he has seven to 10 bracelet cases a year and that they usually involve people whose extreme alcohol abuse results in assaults or disorderly conduct.

"They’re kind of like: ‘Oh, judge, I’m not going to drink anymore,’ " Repp said of the offenders when they appear before him. "This is kind of my way of keeping them honest. We found it to be very effective."

Repp conceded, however, that the bracelets haven’t always kept the offenders from electing to drink anyway.

"We’ve had some miserable failures," he said.

Miami County Municipal Court in the western Ohio city of Troy has 10 of the bracelets and has been using them for about two months. Offenders there are charged a $100 hookup fee plus $10 daily.

Judge Mel Kemmer said offenders’ employment history and number and seriousness of alcohol-related offenses are considered in determining if they are good candidates for the devices. The offenders serve some jail time before being released with the devices, with the balance of the jail time hanging over their heads if they violate conditions of their release.

"It gives people an opportunity to prove to me and to themselves, more importantly, that they can be a responsible person," Kemmer said.

Doug Scoles, executive director of the Ohio chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said it sounds as if the bracelets have the potential to be an effective tool in keeping drunken drivers from re-offending.

Jeff Gamso, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said the bracelets should only be used on people who have a demonstrated alcohol problem related to what they were convicted of.

"If they use it in the most careful of ways and it is suitably reliable, then it is probably constitutional," Gamso said.

Greene County Common Pleas Court in the southwestern Ohio city of Xenia has used the bracelets on 15 to 20 offenders during the past year.

"Alcohol monitoring has always been a huge challenge because it leaves the system so quickly," said Bryan Lynch, director of the prison diversion program for the county’s adultprobation department. "SCRAM has just filled a huge void in alcohol monitoring. We’ve never had anybody ultimately contest the technology."

Associated Press