To keep convicts sober, judges use technology and special courts .
As the holidays approached, folks in Dallas district Judge Vickers Cunningham’s office last year figured at least a few convicted drunken drivers on probation would fall off the wagon.
Stone-cold sobriety is typically a condition of a defendant’s probation. Yet it’s always been hard to hold defendants to that condition because the body metabolizes alcohol much quicker than drugs, making random urine tests practically useless.
But last year, Judge Cunningham started using a new tool to combat and monitor the drinking problem of probationers: the Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor (SCRAM), an ankle bracelet that detects alcohol consumption.
“I’ve been on the bench 11 years, and this is the best criminal justice tool I’ve ever had,” said Judge Cunningham, who announced this week that he is stepping down from the bench to pursue another elected office. Political insiders speculate he will run for Dallas County district attorney.
He is among judges across the nation who are using new technology and innovative programs to deal with a problem that jail time doesn’t seem to solve: people who can’t stop driving after drinking.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Judge Cunningham said. “We have all these programs and all these intervention-type deals, and these people keep coming back.”
Nearly everyone who appears before Judge Cunningham to face drunken driving charges already has multiple drunken driving convictions. But he’s seen more success stories since he started putting the ankle monitor on probationers, he said.
The device, SCRAM for short, detects alcohol by testing unnoticeable sweat emissions. It’s so finely tuned that it can detect if the person takes cold medicine containing alcohol or even a swig of alcohol-based mouthwash. It also alerts the monitoring agency if the ankle device has been tampered with.
When Judge Cunningham asked Dallas-based Recovery Healthcare to start providing and monitoring the devices about two years ago, he was just trying to figure out a quick and cost-effective way to implement SCRAM. The device is often too expensive for tight probation office budgets, and he has his defendants pay Recovery Healthcare themselves. Alcohol Monitoring Systems, which developed SCRAM, now touts that partnership nationwide as a model program.
“The Dallas area is fortunate because it had every tool: our tool, a strong treatment program and judges really enforcing the program,” said Kathleen Brown, the company’s spokeswoman.
In Denton County, county criminal court judge David Garcia has fallen for the device, too. But he’s also spearheaded another initiative to battle multiple offenders.
“I don’t want to push paper; I want to be able to make a difference,” Judge Garcia said. “It doesn’t do us any good if we punish them, send them back on the street and they do the same thing. We’re trying to change that philosophy.”
In July, a team of his county’s law enforcement and legal officials headed to Austin for a program that trained them in establishing a court that specifically deals with repeat offenders. The program isn’t aimed at social drinkers or people with a single alcohol-related infraction. Instead, it targets people who seem to be alcoholics.
DWI courts, as they’re called, use existing space and resources. Judges usually set aside a specific day or afternoon depending on the need to hear, monitor and judge defendants who are have become familiar faces.
Probationers are typically required to come to court weekly so the judge can assess progress they’ve made in staying sober and getting their life together. They’re expected to hold down jobs, pay child support and live up to other financial responsibilities. Besides checking in with a probation officer, defendants must also attend alcohol treatment sessions.
“We all recognize it as a disease,” Judge Garcia said.
“Some people for whatever reason turn to alcohol. And then they get behind the wheel, and I’m trying to stop them and to change their everyday life pattern.”
Like the SCRAM device, DWI courts are becoming increasingly popular nationwide. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration helped fund the Austin training session, which included teams from Denton, Dallas and Collin counties. It was the agency’s first of about 10 such sessions in the country.
David Hodges, a judicial liaison for the program, said the reason such programs are gaining in popularity is because they do something jail time doesn’t seem to: get people to stop drinking.
“What sold me is every judge that I have talked to that has participated, their faces light up when you talk about it,” said Mr. Hodges, who was a McLennan County judge for about 20 years. “They tell me, ‘I was so burnt out. This has saved my career. I’m really making a difference in people’s lives.’ ”
But it’s not just judges who rave about the program, Mr. Hodges said. The defendants and their families like it. It’s successful, he said, because it doesn’t just threaten defendants, it teaches them how to alter the behavior that keeps getting them into trouble.
“All of a sudden everybody started going, ‘You know, just throwing people in jail and throwing away the key might not be the solution to this,’ ” Mr. Hodges said.
“It’s not like a … liberal type of thing. We’re doing it because it works.”
When such innovative initiatives don’t keep probationers from drinking, Judge Cunningham has little patience. And sure enough, SCRAM devices alerted him during the 2004 holiday season that three people on probation had fallen back into old habits.
Their punishments: 30 days in jail.
“Talk is cheap,” Judge Cunningham said. “I want performance.”
HOW IT WORKS
The Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor, or SCRAM, straps onto a person’s ankle and tests imperceptible emissions of sweat about once an hour.
Once a day, a modem downloads the data, which manufacturer, Alcohol Monitoring Systems stores. If the person had had any alcohol, even mouthwash, it shows up. “It’s as obvious as the nose on your face,” said Dallas District Judge Vickers Cunningham. Some courts, like Judge Cunningham’s, use a third-party treatment provider for the device. Others rely on internal probation officers to administer the program.
When the downloaded data shows an “alcohol event,” Alcohol Monitoring Systems lets the courts, the probation office or the treatment provider know. The wearer is quickly called into court or their probation office. Offenders face penalties ranging from a few days in jail to revocation of probation. Larry Vanderwoude, SCRAM program manager for Dallas-based Recovery Healthcare, provides the device and monitors to law enforcement in conjunction with treatment. He has about 200 patients who use the bracelet and said while he has no complete data on its success because of the small sample size and short amount of time it’s been available, even those on it seem to appreciate it after time. “I think it’s been probably the most successful thing in working with repeat DWI offenders,” he said.
“This seems to work.”
Despite the praise from the judicial staff, every attorney that I know that has had clients on the SCRAM, have complained about false positive reports. I think, in Austin, we are headed that way, but I fear the problems that other folks have had with this system. It is not, cannot be, testing for ethyl alcohol. We are exposed to chemicals everyday that could cause a false positive.