It's not often that state and local governments find themselves distributing jewelry to be worn by celebrities. But when the celebrity is Lindsay Lohan, and the jewelry is an alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet, it all starts to make sense.
Remote monitoring for alcohol consumption is becoming more popular as jurisdictions struggle to ease the strain on overcrowded prisons and jails. Offenders with repeated alcohol-related arrests also may benefit from a system that lets them go about their everyday lives, sans booze, of course. Known as the Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring (SCRAM) system, the device tests offenders for the presence of alcohol and wirelessly sends the information to Alcohol Monitoring Systems Inc., the Colorado-based company that makes it.
"It's kind of like a Breathalyzer for your ankle because the technology inside is a fuel cell that measures for the presence of ethanol. It's the identical fuel cell that you would find in a breath-test machine," said Kathleen Brown, spokeswoman for Alcohol Monitoring Systems. "But instead of blowing into the machine, there's a little pump that goes on in the bracelet every 30 minutes that takes a sample of what's called insensible perspiration, and it's something we have on our skin all the time."
As of press time, SCRAM was being used in statewide programs in Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. And across the country, it had been implemented by approximately 1,800 jurisdictions in 48 states.
Offenders are fitted with an ankle bracelet and receive a base station that plugs into a conventional phone line. Although SCRAM monitors an offender's perspiration every 30 minutes, the information is uploaded wirelessly to the base station at a predetermined time once per day. "The offender has to be within about 30 feet of that base station and those two things automatically look for each other," Brown said. The data then gets uploaded to a Web application hosted by the company, and a daily report is sent to the participating agency or jurisdiction.
Any reading of more than 0.02 blood-alcohol content (BAC) is considered a positive test. The device can detect alcohol content below that level, but Brown said it isn't confirmed until it reaches 0.02 due to fuel cell calibration. If the daily report indicates that the offender's BAC was above the threshold, the alert is verified by a team of people at the company who track how quickly the alcohol is absorbed and other factors. Brown said it's possible for SCRAM to generate an alert from hair spray or other products that contain alcohol, however, those products would evaporate much more rapidly than the body could metabolize alcohol.
There's also technology in place to detect tampering: During its tests, SCRAM checks the person's temperature and an infrared beam measures the reflective quality of the surface that bounces back. These checks ensure that nothing has been placed between the offender and the bracelet.
Judge Stephen Bouchard of Missouri's 23rd Judicial Circuit Court said SCRAM is a good way to ensure that defendants on trial or awaiting trial for alcohol-related offenses aren't getting intoxicated and possibly hurting themselves or others. Michigan replaced an old sobriety system with SCRAM and has benefited from the 24-hour coverage, according to Greg Roach, manager of Michigan's Electronic Monitoring System.
As of March 24, Missouri's 23rd Judicial Circuit Court in Jefferson County was monitoring 114 people with SCRAM -- a nearly tenfold increase from January 2007, when the system was only tracking 12 defendants. Bouchard requires that offenders wear the device in cases where alcohol has contributed to their wrongdoing including: repeat alcohol offenders who are on trial or have been sentenced to probation; felony cases that involve serious physical injury or death as a result of a car accident caused by an allegedly intoxicated defendant; domestic violence cases where alcohol was identified as a contributing factor; and offenders
under the age of 21 who have been charged with repeated alcohol-related offenses.
One of the main benefits for offenders wearing the device is to continue their daily routine. "The SCRAM technology permits the offenders to remain employed so they can fulfill their family obligations, and they can remain in [sobriety] treatment or can be admitted into treatment," said Probation Officer Tammy Berg.
Offenders in Missouri pay $12 per day to cover SCRAM's operating cost, an amount that was set by the court. This is also, not surprisingly, the main complaint people have with being required to wear the bracelet. Berg said when offenders are removed from the program, they participate in a survey and SCRAM's cost is the only negative response the court system has received so far. "However, in the same survey they indicate that they would spend around $10 a day on their 12-pack of beer," she said. "So they're really only out $2 a day for the device."
Following the beta testing in 2003, the Michigan Department of Corrections officially began using SCRAM in 2004. The department's parole board and the state's circuit court judges can require parolees and offenders to wear the devices.
"We run our own monitoring center here. It's a 24/7 operation, and we have staff that will contact offenders to obtain statements when we find out that there are alerts reported due to violation behavior," Roach said.
SCRAM isn't the first alcohol-tracking technology Michigan has used. The state previously tried the Sobrietor, a remote breath-testing device that uses phone and power lines. The device worked in conjunction with radio-frequency curfew monitoring, so officials knew when offenders were home and would call and require a sobriety test. But the department switched to SCRAM because of its 24-hour monitoring capability, Roach said.
One big benefit for Michigan is that SCRAM keeps some offenders out of prison. "It allows the courts a sentencing alternative rather than incarceration," he said, "so that savings comes in the form of prison beds and jail beds."
In Michigan, SCRAM wearers pay $13 per day to cover the system's cost. In contrast, the state spends approximately $83 per day to incarcerate one inmate, according to a 2007 Senate Fiscal Agency report. Roach said the state doesn't require the users to pay SCRAM's fee up front because the true cost savings come from not having the person incarcerated.
The technology has improved over the years, Roach said. "It used to be a very cumbersome device -- it looked like a pair of old stereo headphones from the '70s," he said adding that SCRAM is now more comfortable and less likely to come off the offender.
Could the technology be used to monitor for other drugs? Probably not. Alcohol Monitoring Systems' Brown said the current random drug testing performed by jurisdictions is a good system. "It's very cost-effective and very good at catching drug use because drugs tend to leave residual indicators in your body a lot longer than alcohol," she said.
Still, the device has evolved. In early 2010, the company released a new version, SCRAMx, that can monitor alcohol consumption and the offender's location --combining house arrest and booze control in one unit. All SCRAM units will be updated with the new technology this year, and jurisdictions will have the option of using the location monitoring function.
Missouri's Bouchard would like to see SCRAM move even further into the 21st century by connecting with a smartphone every 30 or 60 minutes. "So you would receive immediate notification if there's an alcohol event as opposed to waiting until someone downloads," he said, "but the downloads are daily and that happens pretty darn quick."
Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.