Sherman L. Harris knows alcohol has caused problems in his life. After struggling with the bottle for five years, he was arrested for assaulting his estranged wife, and his 28-year marriage ended.
But the Houston man turned a corner earlier this year when a state district judge ordered him to wear a bracelet to ensure he did not drink. Today, he is sober and thankful for the technology's impact on his life.
The device is called the Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor — or, SCRAM bracelet — and is strapped to an offender's ankle 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to monitor whether the person has consumed any alcohol.
"It really helped change my life and helped me realize I needed to do something different," said Harris, who is now on probation, having received deferred adjudication after pleading no contest to a charge of aggravated assault. "All in all, it actually made me think, and it kept me straight — because I knew what the consequences were going to be if I did not stay straight."
While the technology is new to Houston, it's been used in Dallas for some time. More than 300 offenders are currently wearing the devices.
The bracelet looks like a pair of stereo headphones strapped around someone's ankle. But the 8-ounce tool is really a sophisticated, Internet-based measuring device that tests an offender's perspiration once an hour for alcohol consumption.
Because alcohol metabolizes in a person's body so quickly, the SCRAM bracelet uses a form of testing known as transdermal analysis to check for chemicals secreted through the skin. The readings are then relayed through a telephone modem to a computer system in Colorado maintained by Alcohol Monitoring Systems, the company that manufactures the bracelets.
Once the bracelet is strapped on, an offender cannot take it off. It is water-resistant, so the offender does not have to remove the bracelet to shower. However, it cannot be submerged in water, such as bathtubs or hot tubs.
Being sentenced to wear the bracelet is not the offender's only payment to society. They have to bear the costs of the device, which are expensive. Houston attorney Scott Ramsey expressed a concern about the steep cost of the technology and whether it could hurt a defendant's chance of being granted bail while awaiting trial. That's because offenders pay all the costs of SCRAM. In Harris County, the installation fee is $60, and monitoring fees average $12 to $14 a day.
"My concern is once the judges are aware this is available, they might decide to impose this as a condition of bond, just kind of across the board," Ramsey said. "I think for many people it would be cost prohibitive."
State District Judge Caprice Cosper said the device is effective but will hardly become the only solution for alcohol-related crimes.
"The SCRAM device is one tool in a much bigger arsenal, which includes supervision, treatment and accountability," the judge said. She, too, expressed concern about the cost, which she hopes will decrease as the bracelet becomes more widely used.
"It is new, and it is expensive," she said.