For $10 a day, defendants can prove they're alcohol-free

Stephen Hulgin, 44, wore the SCRAM alcohol monitoring bracelet for a year, after a conviction for driving under the influence.

CURTIS KRUEGER | Times

Stephen Hulgin, 44, wore the SCRAM alcohol monitoring bracelet for a year, after a conviction for driving under the influence.

For a solid year, Stephen Hulgin knew he could not sneak a drink without getting locked up.

The reason was strapped around his ankle: an alcohol monitoring device he wore 24 hours a day, as part of his sentence for a DUI conviction. If he took a drink, the device would know it.

"I knew it was there; I knew I couldn't beat it," Hulgin said. And he knew what the judge had told him: One more drink and "I go to prison for four years."

Hulgin, 44, who lives in a Clearwater rehab center and has a paving company, recently had his electronic monitor removed after an alcohol-free year. He says the device helped him and was "a big component of me getting out of jail."

It also is becoming part of the anti-alcohol strategy for the criminal justice system in the Tampa Bay area. Judges are increasingly requiring monitoring devices for defendants who need to prove they're not drinking.

"I think it can be a very effective tool in protecting the public," said Pinellas County Judge Donald E. Horrox, who has ordered defendants to wear them.

Week after week, judges sentence people for driving under the influence and other alcohol-related offenses. While some get jail time, probation usually follows. Others are released on bail as they await trial.

Judges almost always order these people to stop drinking alcohol while they are on probation or awaiting trial. But how do you make sure someone doesn't drink?

There are ways, such as random urine samples, mandatory AA meetings, and visits to probation officers — all with the threat of more jail time looming overhead.

But it can still be possible to cheat, partly because traces of alcohol disappear from the body more quickly than other drugs. Alcohol monitors are designed to take away that possibility.

The Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor, or "SCRAM" brand alcohol bracelet, which has been used in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, is strapped to a defendant's leg above his or her ankle and can be hidden under a pants cuff.

It samples sweat on the skin every 30 minutes, and detects the presence of alcohol. It records the data and sends results back to a central computer and, eventually, on to the court system.

"It's a Breathalyzer for your ankle," said Kathleen Brown, spokeswoman for the Denver-based company that makes them, Alcohol Monitoring Systems.

It also contains anti-tampering technology designed to detect when someone is trying to fool the device — such as the person who wedged a piece of baloney in between his ankle and the bracelet. (Baloney may feel roughly like skin, but it's cold and doesn't sweat.)

About 50 of the SCRAM bracelets are in use at any one time in the Tampa Bay area, said local representative and bail bondsman Frank Kopczynski. More than 10,000 are in use nationwide, Brown said.

Pinellas County Judge Paul Levine said he became intrigued with the alcohol bracelets when he realized they provide a good way to continuously check on serious alcohol offenders, such as repeat drunken drivers. They're also good for spouse abusers who get violent when drunk; take away the alcohol, and you often take away the violence, he said.

But over time, he said he heard from defendants who say "they can't believe they actually went 90 days without drinking, and it helps their recovery."

"It's a tool now to help break the cycle of drinking," he said.

Hulgin agrees. He said when he was sentenced in Pasco County to wear the bracelet for a full year, the judge told him "If I drank, I'd be in prison. He made sure I understood that if I failed … I'm going away."

He wore it 24 hours a day, even in the shower. After about three sober months, he said he felt his alcohol cravings subside. Now that he is off the bracelet, he is optimistic that he will also be able to stay off alcohol, with help from his family and the Christian recovery center where he lives, called Center of Hope.

"It helped me," Hulgin said. And he added, "it's nice to be able to prove to the court system and society that I haven't drank a drop."

But he does have a reason to be happy to get off of it. It costs $10 a day, and he's the one who had to pay it.

That $300 a month is a burden that not everyone can afford. But Kopczynski, the Tampa Bay representative for SCRAM monitors, said $10 a day is less than some people spend at bars. He also has a question for people who have been released from jail but are complaining about the cost of the bracelet:

"How much money are you making in jail?"

For $10 a day, defendants can prove they're alcohol-free 01/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 1, 2010 8:54pm]

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