SCHENECTADY : Offi cials making use of tools for sobriety
Technology helps court to monitor, encourage users
When John entered Schenectady County Drug Court last year after being arrested a third time for drunken driving, the urge to drink was there, more than ever, he recalled.
Drug court helps offenders whose crimes were motivated by drug and alcohol addiction get into treatment, off drugs and alcohol and, the goal is, give them the tools to stay off.
If they don’t stay off, they face incarceration.
Had John come through drug court a couple years earlier, he might have been able to do what his urges demanded. And there was a chance no one would ever know. But because he entered last year, there was every chance those running the program would know if he took a drink.
Drunken driving offenders entering the program now are fitted with an alcohol monitoring bracelet. The device attaches to the person’s leg and continuously monitors their sweat for signs of alcohol, recording every test.
John said there is no doubt the device helped him. Now 11 months sober, he asked that his real name not be used.
“For me, I used to drink a lot,” John said. “So when I started drug court, and they put the bracelet on me, it made me stop thinking about alcohol, the drinking. Because I had a drinking problem.”
John wore the bracelet for four months. How long offenders wear it is up to those who oversee the court. He is also still in drug court, and goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly. He’s due to be in drug court into next year.
Schenectady County Drug Court has used the monitoring devices going on two years now and court Director Ron Butler said the bracelets have become an important asset.
“What it really is, it’s just another tool that we have at our disposal to make people aware that we are paying attention to what they’re doing,” Butler said, “more so for them, but just as well as for the community.
“One of the things we say to the community is that, as long as we are able to have this program, we will put everyone’s safety first. So, we need to make sure that people aren’t out drinking, and this is one of the ways in which we do that.” SCRAM Systems.
The bracelets have been available from the company since 2003 and usage is slowly rising.
Without the bracelet, alcohol is the most difficult drug to detect, Butler said. Offenders have to be found intoxicated, because within four to five hours, signs of alcohol consumption can be gone.
“I have 100 to 200 test kits in here that will test for multiple drugs,” Butler said, “but not one, with the exception of the bracelets, that will test for alcohol. And people know that.”
The bracelets work through a small, square box strapped to the person’s lower leg. The box stays on around the clock and the wearer can even shower with it on.
It then repeatedly checks sweat for signs of alcohol, with a small pump in the device that pulls in a sample and tests it. The results can then be downloaded in the drug court office and sent for analysis. It can detect as little as one beer, though one beer may not result in a confirmed test. Those with drinking problems rarely would stop with one, noted Dan Musella, fi eld officer for the company.
That constant threat that the device, and by extension program officials, are watching, is often enough to keep offenders from taking that drink. Musella cited a 93 percent compliance rate.
“It’s a constant reminder on their leg that they cannot drink,” he said.
The Schenectady County Drug Court, along with the Schenectady City Court program, were among the first in the Capital Region to sign on in 2010. About 25 people in the county are on the devices currently, and about 100 have used them at least once over the past two years.
Schenectady County signed on after Butler attended a presentation on the devices, then had three loaned for a month’s trial. One of them caught an offender drinking.
After more research and talking with other officials, the county won a grant for just less than $200,000. The grant covered the purchase of 25 of the devices and helped pay the salary of someone to help monitor them. There’s also a monitoring fee for each device in use of about $7 per day. That cost is to be paid by the wearer, not the county or the state.
“When you compare that to how much it costs for a person to be in jail, that’s a very low cost, a very low cost,” Butler said.
For the individual, Butler noted, the $7 compares to how much they spent daily on alcohol, which often averages $10.
While the court can’t mandate payment for those who can’t pay, the vendor has set up payment plans, with payoff slated by the time they leave drug court. Offi cials also are mindful not to get the person in over their head with a bill they cannot pay, shortening the time, if need be. CRITICAL PERIOD
John had his on for four months, and has been off it now for seven. He called the cost worth it, helping him get past the crucial fi rst months of his sobriety.
“Talking and doing is two different things,” John said. “But once you get the bracelet on, you definitely know. It keeps you in check.”
The devices have since seen usage in Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie counties as well.
Fulton County only recently started experimenting with the bracelets, said County Court Judge Richard Giardino, who oversees that county’s drug court. They’ve been using it on some bail cases and on a couple drug court participants. So far, it’s worked well.
“We’re basically starting out slow to make sure we’re comfortable monitoring and using it,” Giardino said. “So far, we’re very happy with it.”
Schenectady County has also expanded the use of the bracelets. Anyone who comes into the program for drunken driving automatically gets one. The length of time they’re used depends on the individual case.
If a participant has alcohol use in their past, they also likely get one. Then, before they’re out of the program, everyone is to wear one for 60 days. That ensures that they haven’t switched from one drug to another, Butler said.
There are protections against false positives, Butler said. Once people start drinking, the alcohol content spikes. As the body gets rid of the alcohol after the person stops drinking, the alcohol content reduces at an expected rate.
Butler recalled one participant working in an auto body shop, painting cars. The process was constantly recorded by the bracelet. But it was recorded in spikes, not consistent with someone consuming alcohol. The monitor was registering exposure to paint fumes. NO BOLOGNA
There are also protections against tampering. Wearers can’t remove it themselves without a secure clip breaking. The device also looks for other signs of tampering. Some people have gotten the idea that a piece of bologna can be slid in, as it sweats, Butler said. It doesn’t work and the device detects it as tampering.
If the device becomes irritating to the skin, the individual can come in and have Butler move it to their other leg.
When it’s time to fi nally remove the bracelets, Butler said, some participants become hesitant, unsure of how they’ll react without that constant check.
For John, he’s been able to maintain his sobriety. He uses the treatment programs and the AA meetings but credits the bracelet for getting him started.
“The bracelet did a lot for me,” John said. “It was a huge part of me staying sober. When I had it, I had the feeling that I want to drink again, but when I thought about it, I had it on, it made me strong enough not to drink again or relapse.”
“I’m proud of myself,” John said later. “I’ve been sober for 11 months. It makes me focus more on stuff that I do, work and other things. Staying sober just feels nice.”