Alcohol consumption monitors get high marks

Thursday, December 27, 2007

ST. LOUIS -- An ankle monitor that keeps tabs on the alcohol consumption of people bonded out of jail or on probation is getting high marks from court and probation officials in the St. Louis area.

Known as a SCRAM device, the monitor is strapped to the ankle of those involved in alcohol-related criminal cases. The device constantly tests perspiration for trace levels of alcohol.

"I really find it invaluable," Jefferson County Associate Circuit Judge Stephan Bouchard told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Most people just don't drink when they are on these monitors because they understand the consequences.

"It's an absolute guarantee of sobriety once you release a person from jail. If they do drink, you're going to know about it immediately."

The Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services, a private probation monitoring company that goes by EMASS, manages the program in the St. Louis region.

"I'm convinced this is going to revolutionize how alcohol offenders are monitored," said Michael Smith, president of St. Charles-based EMASS. "Alcohol is difficult to test for because it metabolizes so quickly. Someone under house arrest could be sitting at home drunk out of his mind, and we'd never know. But this tests every hour."

SCRAM is most often used when alcohol is a contributing factor to a crime. The ankle monitor often goes on defendants released on bond awaiting trial, those sentenced to probation, underage drinking offenders or those with multiple drunken driving offenses, Smith said.

St. Louis County's Drug Court has been using the monitor for at least two years, assistant prosecutor Kathi Alizadeh said.

"It helps them resist temptation because they know they will get caught," she said.

In most courts, a positive test means a trip to jail, tougher monitoring or mandatory alcohol treatment.

"These people are in the program because they have addiction," Alizadeh said. "We know there are a number of people who are going to have problems and relapse along the way. So we have to handle it on a case-by-case basis."

Twenty Missouri counties are using SCRAM. About 250 offenders wear the device on any day.

The 8-ounce, water-resistant monitor tests every hour, 24 hours a day. It will trigger an alarm if the wearer tries to tamper with it, and tampering is a felony in Missouri.

The monitor sends the test results to a modem in the offender's home once a day, usually while he or she is sleeping, Smith said. Then the information is sent to SCRAMnet, a Web-based program that court agents can access at any time.

The system considers an alcohol level of 0.02 to be a positive test. That's the equivalent of a 180-pound male consuming fewer than two drinks on an empty stomach in less than an hour.

Jefferson County criminal defense attorney Mike Lowry said he has recommended SCRAM to a number of clients. But he does have concerns.

The cost can be an obstacle. Offenders are usually required to pay $10 to $12 for daily monitoring and an installation fee of $50 to $100. And some worry about malfunctions.

Lowry hasn't heard of any such cases, but wonders, "It's a machine, and machines make mistakes."

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