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.

Dry Court

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

Elaine Pittman  |  Associate Editor

Elaine Pittman is the associate editor for Government Technology, Public CIO and Emergency Management. Before coming to Government Technology, she worked for The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.