Promising Sentencing Practice No. 6
Electronic Monitoring and SCRAM

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By Judge Michael Barrasse (Pennsylvania)

Home detention with electronic monitoring may be used as an alternative to incarceration. It is less expensive than incarceration, and allows offenders to remain in their homes, to go to work,67 and to maintain their other responsibilities, while their activities are electronically monitored to ensure they are complying with the conditions set by the court.

As noted by the California Department of Motor Vehicles in its annual report to the California legislature on the effectiveness of measures for reducing DWI recidivism:

  • DUI countermeasure evaluations have consistently found jail sentences to be among the least effective sanctions for reducing the subsequent crash and recidivism rates of convicted DUI offenders (citations omitted). Jail is also one of the most expensive sanctions in the criminal justice system. Given both the ineffectiveness and cost of jail as a criminal justice countermeasure, there is growing acceptance of the use of house arrest (electronic confinement) for nonviolent criminal offenders, including many DUI offenders. . .. Because it is feasible for the offender to continue to work during daytime hours, while being confined at night (when most drinking and alcohol-impaired driving occurs), the offender is often able to cover the cost of nighttime monitoring, while also continuing to provide for family members.68


What Is Electronic Monitoring?
Electronic monitoring provides surveillance of an offender’s presence within the immediate vicinity of an assigned area. There are many types of electronic monitoring devices. Some attach to the wrist, others to the ankle. Some relay a continuous signal to a computer at the probation offices or manufacturer’s business; others involve equipment in addition to what is strapped to the offender and require the offender to respond to random phone calls.

DWI offenders may be required to have certain monitoring add-ons, such as breath-testing devices. These alcohol monitors enable probation offices to ensure that offenders are complying with court orders to abstain from alcohol consumption as a condition of sentencing and probation. They test for alcohol on the offender’s breath and transmit test results to the monitoring agency over the offender’s telephone line. Typically, DWI offenders subject to this condition of home arrest must submit to multiple tests per day. Voice recognition devices ensure that the offender is the person taking the test.


Effectiveness of Electronic Monitoring
A study conducted in Los Angeles County, California, which evaluated how electronic monitoring affects recidivism, cost, and effectiveness among repeat DWI offenders, found that the recidivism rate of those offenders in the electronic monitoring program was one-third lower (one year after entering the program) than the rate for those offenders who were incarcerated, and that the cost saving to the county was significant: it saved approximately $1 million in jail costs. The cost of electronic monitoring averaged $15 per day for each offender and this cost was paid by the offenders themselves.69

A seven-year evaluation of an electronic monitoring program in Palm Beach County, Florida, for repeat DWI offenders, showed that electronic monitoring was an effective alternative to incarceration: 85 percent of participants successfully completed the program at a price of approximately one-third the cost of jail.70 Another study which compared DWI offenders sentenced to electronic monitoring with a control group sentenced to incarceration found no significant differences in the recidivism rates of the two groups.71

The Minnesota Department of Corrections annual report to the State legislature on the effectiveness of the State’s Remote Electronic Alcohol Monitoring (REAM) program found that 19 percent of pre-sentence participants had violations or arrests while enrolled in the program and 14 percent of post-sentence participants had violations or arrests while enrolled in the program; however, very few arrests for new DWI offenses occurred while participants were enrolled in the program.72


Some courts are using an alcohol-monitoring device called SCRAM (Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor). The device is attached to the offender’s ankle and monitors the offender’s blood alcohol level by measuring ethanol vapor as it migrates through the surface of the skin. The device is designed to detect and record any tampering or attempts to remove it. A Smart Modem communicates test results from the subject’s home to an Internet-based central monitoring station, which provides supervising parties with constant access to the alcohol readings of each subject.73

67 Judges should be conscious of the requirements of 23 U.S.C. §164 which requires a mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment for repeat DWI offenders. Otherwise, the State risks losing Federal highway funding. To comply, the judge could simply sentence the offender to electronic monitoring after the minimum term of imprisonment has been served.
68 See Helander, Clifford J., “DUI Countermeasures in California: What Works and What Doesn’t, With Recommendations for Legislative Reform,” California Department of Motor Vehicles, pp. 8-9 (September 2002).
69 See Jones, R.K., et al., “Evaluation of Alternative Programs for Repeat DWI Offenders,” DOT 808 493, pp. 39-66 (October 1996).
70 See Lilly, J. Robert, et al., “Electronic Monitoring of the Drunk Driver: A Seven-Year Study of the Home Confinement Alternative,” Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 39, pp. 462-484 (October 1993).
71 See Courtright, Kevin E., et al., “Rehabilitation in the New Machine? Exploring Drug and Alcohol Use and Variables Related to Success Among DUI Offenders Under Electronic Monitoring—Some Preliminary Outcome Results,” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp. 293-311 (2000).
72 See “Remote Electronic Alcohol Monitoring 2004 Report,” Minnesota Department of Corrections.
73 For further discussion of SCRAM, see “Reducing Alcohol-Related Crime Electronically,” Phillips, Kirby, Federal Probation, Vol. 65, No. 2 (September 2001) and “Recent Survey Shows Need for Better Alcohol Testing in Drug and DWI Courts,” Brown, Kathleen, NADCP News (Spring 2004). Note that this study did not use a control group citing ethical considerations.