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Offenders to be fitted with US sobriety bracelets

HOLLYWOOD star Lindsay Lohan may have sported one for a year but it's hardly the must-have accessory for 2012.

TAGGED: Lindsay Lohan has been sporting her sobriety  tag, bottom right, for the past year.
TAGGED: Lindsay Lohan has been sporting her sobriety tag, bottom right, for the past year.

In what is believed to be a first outside the US, hundreds of violent offenders with alcohol-related problems in the west of Scotland will be fitted with electronic tags that can detect whether they have broken a ban on drinking while serving a community sentence.

The “sobriety bracelets”, which are usually tagged to the ankle, record the wearer’s alcohol intake by measuring air and perspiration emissions from the skin every 30 minutes.

They detect blood alcohol levels as low as 0.02% and can tell when the alcohol was consumed before electronically transmitting that information to a base monitoring station.

The equipment is to be introduced to the west of Scotland if funding is secured from the Scottish Government and will be used as part of a pilot scheme for violent offenders receiving community sentences to be undertaken by Strathclyde Police’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU).

A study of prisoners by Strathclyde Police in 2007 found approximately two-thirds of those arrested at the scene of a crime were under the influence of alcohol, with the VRU spending the past year exploring ways to restrict alcohol consumption by offenders.

As part of the study, 200 offenders would be placed on a period of complete sobriety for 120 days, with an additional month dedicated to a “stepwise” programme to introduce moderate alcohol consumption, if the offender requests it.

The Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor, or Scram, hit the headlines when Freaky Friday star Lohan was fitted with one last year after she failed to show up for a probation hearing relating to a 2007 drink-driving case because she was in France.

American courts have ordered Scram devices on thousands of defendants released on bond and awaiting trial for alcohol-related offences, those on probation, and under-age drinkers.

Criminal justice professionals in the US report high compliance rates, at least while these people remain in the court system, and have claimed it has an impact on the size of the prison population.

However, many lawyers have argued that, despite widespread use, scientific information is lacking on the device’s reliability and believe false positive readings are also a risk.

Some have claimed baked goods such as sourdough English muffins can cause the body to produce its own alcohol, while online bloggers recommend “scamming the Scram” by placing luncheon meat, tape or paper between the ankle and the sensor or plunging the leg into an ice-cold bath to prevent perspiration.

Alcohol Monitoring Systems Inc, which manufactures the device, insists such ploys do not work. A spokeswoman has described the devices as “like a breathalyser for your ankle”.

Details of the plans for Scotland emerged this week during a meeting of Strathclyde’s governing body, where Chief Constable Steve House said the force had applied for around £150,000 from the Scottish Government for the technology to run the scheme, adding it was “an exciting development” but without ministerial monies they would not be purchased.

Mike Nellis is emeritus professor of criminal and community justice at Strathclyde University and has a particular interest in electronic tagging devices. He said the authorities in the Netherlands and Sweden had considered similar schemes but this was the first he was aware of in Europe.

Mr Nellis said: “I welcome the fact this experiment is going to take place even though I don’t think the science is at all certain. It’s an extremely useful tool but not foolproof.

“There’s bound to be court cases in Scotland where any lawyer worth his salt will challenge the science. But the link between alcohol and violence is cast iron and we’ve got to be imaginative and adventurous.

“Electronic monitoring is only part of a strategy, but in this case I’ve got to question expectations of keeping hardened drinkers away from alcohol for 120 days.”

Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan, co-director of the VRU, said: “Alcohol-related violence is a huge problem for Scotland and the VRU are fully supportive of all measures to tackle it.”

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