From Hollywood's 'not' list to corrections' 'hot' list

     It's not very often that Glamour and Law Enforcement Technology have much in common, especially when it comes to accessories. However, the latest alcohol detection device for corrections was named on Glamour's Worst of 2007 celebrity accessory list. Given the recent slew of A-listers receiving DUI citations, it's not surprising that celebrities and the Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor (SCRAM) bracelet have been sharing headlines.

     But while celebrities try to steer clear of the SCRAM bracelet, the gadget is topping gotta-have-it lists for supervising authorities nationwide. Current users say it's because the unit has a great deal of potential when it comes to observation and supervision of individuals with alcohol-related offenses. Agencies adopting the booze-sniffing bracelet say it fills a void in offender supervision while simultaneously cutting jail populations and costs.

Filling the void

     Alcohol Monitoring Systems (AMS), which manufactures and markets SCRAM, saw the need for technology that could better manage and track alcohol usage, specifically for long-term monitoring. While periodic and random drug-testing methods can be effective in detecting drug use, relying on breath, blood and urine testing makes catching drinking a hit-or-miss game. Prior to 2003, alcohol monitoring technology couldn't compete with the body's ability to metabolize and expel alcohol from the system. Staff and budget constraints also did not allow for an increase in personnel and the frequency of testing necessary to capture alcohol in an offender's system.

     Bob Murnock, Midwest regional manager for AMS, was introduced to the unit while he was an assistant director for the county court supervision office in western Pennsylvania. Murnock says his jurisdiction saw several positives in SCRAM that could alleviate budget tension due to jail overcrowding and better monitor the alcohol-influenced offender.

     "Many counties have had shrinking drug and alcohol treatment dollars," Murnock says. "SCRAM was able to target those DUI offenders, get them out of jail [and] effectively supervise them, actually get them not only on the road to recovery, but on the road to financial responsibility where they had to pay for the program."

     Other methods of monitoring alcohol-related offenders — like the ignition interlock system, which requires a breath test in order to start a vehicle — come up short in the bigger picture of the alcohol abuse cycle for supervisors like Michael Smith, who founded and runs Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services Inc. (EMASS), a private probation company in Missouri.

     "You may put [offenders] on the interlock and it may deter their behaviors for a short period of time, but it doesn't do anything to combat the problem of drinking," Smith explains. "It may combat the problem of drinking and driving, but then after the term of supervision, what happens with the core problem of drinking?"

How it works

     The SCRAM system surpasses Breathalyzers by continuously tracking wearers through transdermal monitoring, some correctional authorities say. The bracelet, strapped to the offender's ankle, takes an air sample once every hour to test for alcohol consumption. The bracelet can also recognize the difference between perfumes or colognes and drinking. All data collected by the bracelet is transmitted, once a day, via AMS's modem placed in the wearer's home, to the Colorado-based company's SCRAMNet data center, and then relayed, next day, to the designated supervising authorities. The automated process requires no labor on the agency's part to administer tests, saving personnel time and expense. Typically, Smith says, there are three referral sources for SCRAM to his private probation business. Referrals from the court to EMASS include drunken driving offenders; domestic violence offenders where alcohol is a contributing factor; and from family court, either to enforce a parent's sobriety or to assess an alcohol problem. Additionally, SCRAM has been used for underage drinking and drug court offenders, who may turn to alcohol while being tested for other drugs.

     Marion County, Indiana's corrections system, has had positive results from the bracelet, which it's used for more than four years. Brian Barton, executive director of Marion County Community Corrections, says he's seen the bracelet change offenders. Behavior can adjust, he says, because the offenders in the program realize they're being closely watched.

     "We use SCRAM to get at the behavior that got them into the criminal justice system," Barton says. "If they're on SCRAM, they're allowed to go about their normal day-to-day life … that's the kind of thing that SCRAM offers somebody — that constant reminder [that one] is looking over your shoulder."

     The SCRAM unit is also unique in its ability to not only monitor alcohol intake around the clock, but in its abilities to determine if it's been tampered with. Murnock says that over the years he's been overseeing SCRAM programs, he's encountered numerous attempts to outsmart the booze-busting accessory.

     "We've had Saran wrap to orange peels; you name it, people have tried it to defeat the machine," Murnock says. "I will say not our device, nor any device, is 100-percent foolproof. But we've been very effective in catching violations and tampers."

     Murnock describes the infrared and temperature-testing technology behind the tamper system. An IR sensor shoots a beam to the leg and back again, which catches obstructions. Should a wearer place something between the leg and the bracelet, the IR sensor changes and the reading reflects the size, thickness and color of the obstruction. The bracelet also tests the temperature of the face plate, which gives an indication if it has been altered or if something has been placed between the bracelet and the leg.

Legally sound, so far

     SCRAM, on the market since 2003, has encountered several evidentiary hearings. The bracelet's testing results have been entered as evidence against individuals and endured legal challenges in 10 states, with each finding that the technological evidence is sound, according to AMS.

     By and large, Smith, who worked as a state probation officer for 17 years, says he has seen a wide acceptance of the SCRAM unit in the criminal justice system in his jurisdiction. EMASS, which works with the criminal justice system throughout Missouri to regulate offenders, has been using SCRAM for four years. Those two facts together — the prolonged use by EMASS as well as the connection to the legal system — show the Missouri system's acceptance of the technology Smith backs up.

     In addition to its legally sound value, departments, such as Murnock's former Pennsylvania jurisdiction and Barton's Marion County jail, found using the device financially beneficial. Because the wearer absorbs the cost and pays for the program directly, jail expenses are, in turn, reduced. AMS reports the program, on average, costs approximately $12 per person, per day.

     "Those were people that otherwise may have been housed in the county jail at a rate of around $50 a day," Murnock says. "We realized an immediate cost savings by getting those people out and then monitoring them. In the long run, they would pay for the program themselves."

     The offender-pay model includes daily monitoring fees; however, facilities have the option to purchase or lease the bracelet and modem, which is the jurisdiction's investment. AMS reports that costs above and beyond what an offender can pay could be subsidized by government funding.

The 411 on SCRAM II

     In February, AMS revealed a smaller, sleeker version of the device, much improving the wearability and comfort for monitees. Though the technology hasn't changed, the new unit, named SCRAM II, is far more comfortable to wear and far more user friendly, Smith and Murnock say. In addition to decreasing bulk and halving the weight of the original, the strap and battery — which previously required specialized servicing — can be replaced or repaired in the field. The company will be replacing first-generation SCRAM units with SCRAM II at no cost beginning in April, according to AMS.

Trickle-down theory

     The experts in the correctional field claim there's potential for law enforcement on the streets to reap benefits from continuous alcohol monitoring. Though those monitored work most closely with supervising agents, the effect of the bracelet could help offenders modify the behaviors that got them into the system in the first place. This could create a trickle-down effect from community corrections to a reduction in recidivism rate, which experts recognize is high for alcohol offenders. Barton feels that in his community, the possibility for a trickle-down effect is very promising.

     "Many of these drunk drivers and folks [who] have alcohol problems are frequent flyers of the criminal justice system. Our pilot judge has … many sincere letters from folks that say, 'Yes, this has changed my life [and] I have gotten used to being alcohol-free and I have a much better and more productive life,' " says Barton.

     Originally, he saw a possibility for Marion County's pilot program to backfire. He says there was some concern that the promise of consequences for alcohol use could have sent people running for other mood-altering substances that SCRAM doesn't register, such as marijuana.

     "One thing that I worried about when we got this, quite honestly, was [if we] would chase them to another type of poison," Barton says. "But we haven't seen that."

     Murnock, who worked a decade in probation and parole before joining AMS, says he has an optimistic outlook for the effects of SCRAM use in corrections on law enforcement work in the long run.

     "I think [SCRAM] complements [law enforcement officers'] frontline efforts in the field," Murnock says. "Having worked side by side with law enforcement, I respect their efforts, especially as it comes to dealing with alcohol offenders. I think they, of anybody, know how often the alcohol offender is released with very minor sanctions put into place. I think they would also be the first to say these are the same people that have the revolving door effect in the system. The first-time DUI offender can become a multiple DUI offender in a very short period of time. I think law enforcement officers appreciate the work we do because it's a very strong accountability tool."

     Barton agrees that reducing recidivism is a possible outcome with pervasive and prolonged use of SCRAM by corrections. He notes his community's correctional use extends beyond sobriety, but also celebrates reducing alcohol use.

     "The thing I think we've done a little differently here — that I don't know if all of the jurisdictions do — is we don't throw them in the slammer the first time they drink," Barton says. "We realize that this is a tough thing to crack. We have a matrix set up to deal with the first offense, second offense, [and so on]. So they won't go back to jail right away on SCRAM. [While we] love that major victory of total abstinence, we measure small victories as well."

Hollywood's 'not' list

     As far as SCRAM's negative presence in Hollywood, Smith says it isn't curtains for the device, but instead reinforces its capability and power. When those individuals in the public eye with the best resources turn to SCRAM, it says something about the quality and supremacy of the system.

     Smith notes the bracelet on celebrity ankles says positive things about the respect of the technology in it. "It's one of these things about the notoriety, and frankly … if a celebrity would say to you, 'I'm going to prove to you this, this and this' and they choose this kind of testing then that shows the confidence in the technology"