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Alcohol consumption monitors now officially part of city code regarding Electronic Home Monitoring

Drawing of a little house. November 2017.

The use and effectiveness of alcohol monitoring is a point of contention between the court and advocates.

By Henry Stewart-Wood

Alcohol monitoring for defendants charged with DUI or other alcohol related offenses is officially part of Bellingham Municipal Court’s electronic home monitoring program as of the Monday Sep. 28. Council meeting.

While city officials describe electronic home monitoring as a productive alternative to jail — allowing defendants to live at home and go to work with little interruption— criminal justice advocates disagree.  

Defendants at the Bellingham Municipal Court have had the option of electronic home monitoring as an alternative to pre-trial and post-conviction incarceration since 2016 according to the Council’s agenda packet. 

The option for electronic home monitoring was created to reduce the number of people in the Whatcom County Jail said Kathy Smith, Bellingham’s Jail Alternatives and Diversions Manager. 

“In response to the Bellingham Reduces Incarceration Challenge, the city entered into a contract with Friendship Diversion Services to provide electronic home monitoring and detention in hopes of reducing the number of people that we were sending, or keeping, in the Whatcom County Jail,”  Smith said.

The City Council also passed an amendment to include Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring, or SCRAM bracelets, in the city’s municipal code regarding electronic home monitoring. 

“SCRAM is a device that's placed on the defendant’s ankle, and it measures transdermal alcohol secretion, or basically, sweat, every 30 minutes, 24 hours and seven days a week,” Smith said. 

City Attorney Peter Ruffatto said the move to amend the municipal code was to protect Bellingham from any liability. 

“If something happens in the course of someone being supervised in one of those programs, then as long as the jurisdiction is acting in good faith and there’s no gross negligence, there won’t be liability for the agency,” Ruffatto said.

Electronic home monitoring consists of an ankle bracelet that tracks a defendant’s location with a GPS and a SCRAM bracelet that tracks a defendant’s alcohol consumption. However, not all defendants in the program are put on both monitors, Smith said. Both devices send the information to Friendship Diversion Services, a private company Bellingham has a contract with to run its electronic home monitoring, according to the City Council agenda packet

Monday’s revision to the 2016 ordinance clarified what the city is tracking in the program.

 “When we first established it [electronic home monitoring], it was quite clear that GPS tracking was part of the program, but it wasn’t clear in the ordinance and the code that alcohol monitoring was part of the program as well,” Ruffatto said. 

SCRAM bracelets are mainly used as a pre-trial condition for those charged with DUI and other alcohol-related crimes. During the pre-trial phase, the GPS bracelet may be used in lieu of bail, or in cases when the court wants to ensure defendants charged with domestic violence do not contact the alleged victim, Smith said. 

According to the City Council agenda packet, defendants who go through the Bellingham Municipal Court are screened for their GPS home detention eligibility based on a number of factors including criminal history, the severity of the charges and whether they have active warrants. 

“Every defendant that comes before the court usually by initial appearance or arraignment gets screened, and right now we’re averaging about 220 screenings per month,” Smith said. 

Since SCRAM bracelets are typically used as a pre-trial condition, defendants are not screened for their eligibility, Smith said.  

For defendants who are convicted, the GPS bracelet is an option for defendants to live at home, care for dependents and keep their jobs while still being monitored by the court, Ruffatto said. 

“It has both a flexibility for the individual and a public safety component,” Ruffatto said. 

Local defense attorney David Jolly said the home detention aspect of electronic home monitoring is generally well-received as an alternative to jail by his clients. 

“It is a great program, and my clients, of course they don’t love it, but love it as an alternative to jail for many reasons,” Jolly said. “Number one, they don't go to jail; number two, they're in their house; and number three, they can keep working. Which is again a very big deal.” 

While Jolly said he views the GPS bracelet as a progressive alternative to jail, he noted that SCRAM has been used on top of other sanctions or constraints for people charged or convicted with DUIs or other alcohol-related crimes. 

“SCRAM is not an alternative to jail,” Jolly said. “That's a pre-trial condition, and often that pre-trial condition lasts many, many months. It just doesn't go away after a month or two. It's really difficult to have that removed prior to a resolution.” 

The city promotes the SCRAM bracelets as a win-win situation for defendants and the courts. 

“The alcohol monitoring has two valuable purposes, and one is it does allow for greater flexibility, I would say, in a lot of respects for the individual as opposed to some of the other tools that the court has through probation for urinalysis testing,” Ruffato said. 

However, in many cases, SCRAM is more burdensome to the defendant than city officials lead on, Jolly explained. Traveling for work or family can be tricky with an ankle bracelet; some of

Jolly’s clients allegedly weren’t allowed through airport security. Jolly added that several of his previous clients needed surgery, but had to wait until they completed their time on SCRAM to get the surgery. 

Gabriela Kirk, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Northwestern University who has published research on electronic home monitoring in 2020, found that electronic home monitoring programs were typically overused in lower-level cases and underused in higher-level cases.

“There are cases where it's not used really as an alternative, where it's really sort of overdoing it rather than serving as an alternative for people that previously would have been able to make bail, or have had some sort of other option,” Kirk said. 

Kirk said the bracelets can be more inconvenient than promoters of the technology claim. 

“Among my respondents, the experience of electronic home monitoring often ended up hurting employment rather than maintaining it, despite manufacturers' claims,” Kirk said.

Smith said the Bellingham municipal court relies on statistics provided by Friendship Diversion Services to evaluate the effectiveness and success rates of people on SCRAM. According to those statistics, this year the city has a 63% compliance rate with defendants on SCRAM.

As stated in the  Council agenda packet , the average number of days a defendant spends on SCRAM has more than quadrupled in the past three years, from an average of 34 days in 2017 to an average of 176 days spent on SCRAM in 2020. The national average is 106 days. 

The city has not been tracking the rate at which SCRAM graduates re-offend  because it’s mainly used as a pre-trial condition, court administrator Darlene Peterson said. According to Peterson, the court is looking into tracking the rate at which people re-offend in the future. 


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