Originally published May 10, 2011 at 10:02 PM | Page modified May 10, 2011 at 10:05 PM

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Seattle courts to trade jail for ankle bracelets

Ankle bracelets, which test alcohol exuded from a person's skin, would give Seattle courts a cost-effective way to monitor the behavior of those convicted of drunken driving or awaiting trial on DUI charges.

Seattle Times staff reporter


Alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelets, the unflattering fashion accessory worn by troubled actress Lindsay Lohan and a growing number of DUI offenders in Washington state, are coming to Seattle.

Seattle Municipal Court plans to begin using the bracelets to keep tabs on drunken-driving defendants. The bracelets, which test alcohol exuded from a person's skin, are viewed as a cost-effective way to monitor the behavior of those convicted of drunken driving or awaiting trial on DUI charges.

Proponents, including a growing number of state judges, say they're cheaper than making offenders sit in jail.

"We were looking for ways to not put people in jail because of the continuing high cost of doing so," said Judge Brett Buckley of Thurston County District Court, which uses the bracelets. "Our jails are overcrowded. I'm sure Seattle's and King County's are the same."

The bracelets often are worn by defendants out of jail awaiting trial, and for those convicted of DUI and placed on probation. Seattle Municipal Court Judges Steve Rosen and Ed McKenna say the court plans to use the bracelets in misdemeanor drunken-driving cases.

Formally known as a Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor [SCRAM], the bracelets capture alcohol readings every 30 minutes. They also can detect tampering.

That data gets transmitted wirelessly to a Colorado-based private company, Alcohol Monitoring Systems, which, in turn, sends daily reports to probation staff and courthouses. Details about alcohol consumed and attempts at tampering will be reported, said Dan Altvater, regional manager for the Colorado company, manufacturer of the SCRAM device.

"If you have one beer we're going to read it," said Altvater, who noted that the bracelets can detect 0.02 percent of alcohol through the skin. A driver is considered legally drunk in Washington with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent.

The bracelets do not detect drug use.

A third party, Sentinel Offender Services, was awarded the contract to provide alcohol-monitoring bracelets to the city of Seattle, said Alan Velasquez, vice president of the Irvine, Calif., probation services company. Sentinel will purchase the SCRAM systems from Alcohol Monitoring Systems to be used in Seattle and monitor the data, although the total number of bracelets has not been determined, Velasquez said.

Velasquez said the city plans to have offenders placed on the alcohol-monitoring bracelets pay all daily costs, estimated at less than $15 each. It costs $125 per day to house an inmate in King County Jail.

He said offenders in other cities have been happy to pay a daily fee to stay out of jail.

"The benefits are that the city saves on jail costs and the fact that these folks are able to retain their jobs, their lives and their families," Valasquez said. "You curb possible unemployment issues."

While Valasquez and a judge confirmed the deal, Patti McBride, spokeswoman for Seattle Municipal Court, declined to comment. She said in an email that "there are additional details that need to be addressed and resolved."

Alcohol-tracking bracelets are common nationwide and across the Puget Sound region. Judges in Olympia, Auburn, Kirkland, Federal Way, Lake Forest Park, Edmonds, Des Moines, Marysville, Issaquah and Shoreline are placing defendants on SCRAM, Altvater said. Lohan was ordered to wear one last year as part of her ongoing DUI troubles in Los Angeles.

"It's like having the judge strapped to your leg," said John Peterson, director of electronic monitoring and SCRAM Services for Moon Security, which has offices in Eastern Washington and Kirkland. "You always know that somebody is verifying that you're not drinking."

Buckley, the Thurston County District Court judge, said SCRAM makes sense from a cost-savings perspective.

Buckley said his general rule in court is to use SCRAM as an alternative for second- or third-time DUI offenders awaiting trial — paired with ignition interlock devices — instead of having defendants sit in jail. The judge says his rule is that anyone arrested for four or more instances of drunken driving will go to jail while awaiting their trial.

Judges often release DUI defendants, with orders not to drink. A judge would determine whether an offender caught drinking would be jailed.

Buckley says it costs $14 per day to keep offenders on SCRAM, compared to the $85 it costs to house each inmate per day at the Thurston County Jail.

Jon Fox, a DUI lawyer in Seattle, is aware the bracelets are being used, but said that before Seattle courts begin using them they should undergo the same level of scrutiny that Breathalyzer machines and similar devices have endured in court hearings across the state.

"I think it may be seen as an easy fix to the problem of people drinking while [defendants] are on court-monitoring and their DUI case is pending," Fox said. "It may be the city is relying on the manufacturer's word that it's a great device."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or

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