Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Eighth District Drug Court uses alcohol monitors

January 27, 2009

The Eighth District Drug Court is testing a monitoring system to help alcoholics battle their addiction.

Six program participants are wearing ankle bracelets which detect the presence of alcohol through contact with the skin. The devices are one more tool which the Drug Court can use to try to keep its participants clean and sober.

The monitoring device is known as a SCRAM, an acronym for Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring System. The tamper-resistant ankle bracelet monitors the wearer’s perspiration through a trans-dermal measurement device. Alcohol in a wearer’s system can be detected in perspiration.

The pilot program began Dec. 9, 2008. The test subjects are expected to wear the monitors for 60 to 90 days.

Eighth District Drug Court Coordinator Marcus Ellis said he picked December to start the program because of the extra stress which accompanies the holidays. He picked a range of test subjects.

“I selected two individuals that I totally expected to fail, two individuals that I was ambivalent about and two that I would have been absolutely amazed if they failed,” Ellis said.

The ones in whom he had the most confidence lived up to his expectations. Three of the others slipped and had a drink, or several. One was ordered into a rehabilitation program for a month of treatment. One spent a weekend in jail. The third, who had not previously tested positive for any substance abuse since entering the Drug Court program, was ordered to write an essay examining and explaining why he lapsed back into drinking.

Drug Court participants are required to abstain from drug and alcohol use. “You are not allowed to have a glass of wine. You are not allowed to go to the ball game and have a beer,” Ellis said. “If they do, I’m going to know it.”

While the SCRAM device does not provide real-time alerts to alcohol consumption, the wearers know that any alcohol consumption will be detected and reported within hours. Wearers must connect to a data sending device at periodic intervals, usually every six to eight hours, and transmit the data which has been collected. The data is transmitted to a Tupelo company which owns the devices, then relayed to Ellis’s computer. Ellis reviews the readings daily.

“If he went out Friday night and had a couple of drinks, on Saturday, I’ll know it,” Ellis said. “The system allows us to tell if the offender has consumed any alcohol, when they started, the level of alcohol in their system, and when the alcohol event ceased.”

The Eighth District created the Drug Court in 2004. A specialized component to treat alcoholic abusers was added in 2006.

All Drug Court participants are subjected to periodic drug testing via urinalysis. The SCRAM bracelets provide an addition level of testing. Someone who drinks alcohol might dodge detection if too much time passes between the drinking and the testing with a breathalyzer. But the SCRAM can detect lower levels of alcohol.

The goal is to rehabilitate rather than punish, Ellis said.

Ellis said, “Relapse is a part of recovery. What you want to do is get those relapses further and further apart.”

The longer the period of sobriety, the better the chances of avoiding a relapse. The monitors serve as detectors and deterrents.

Ellis said, “If an individual can refrain from the consumption of alcohol for 30 days, he begins to come out of the ‘alcohol fog’ and can think clearly. Keep them sober for 60 days, and they realize that they can refrain from alcohol. If we give them 60 days and they don’t take a drink, obviously they can live without it.”

The SCRAM monitors cost $80 per week for each participant. The Drug Court will cover the cost during the test period. After the test period, Drug Court participants will be required to pay for the monitoring.

The Eighth District Drug Court includes Leake, Neshoba, Newton and Scott counties.

The state currently has 28 drug courts – 20 adult programs and eight juvenile programs. Drug courts seek to rehabilitate drug-using offenders through drug treatment and intense supervision with drug testing and frequent court appearances. Drug courts offer the incentive of a chance to remain out of jail, and the sanction of a jail sentence if participants fail to remain drug-free and in compliance with all program requirements.