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Jefferson County Probation Department adds alcohol monitoring to tool kit

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The Jefferson County Probation Department has a sophisticated new tool at its disposal.

Starting Oct. 25, the department began fielding blood alcohol testing units distributed by Sentinel Offender Services LLC, Irvine, Calif.

The device, called the SL1, is manufactured by Soberlink Inc., Costa Mesa, Calif. It is part of a suite of technologies that help to monitor the blood alcohol content of people under the Probation Department’s supervision.

SL1 units can be used as part of a pretrial release program or as a condition of probation. They also can be used as a graduated sanction for people who have violated a condition of their probation, according to Edward E. Brown, Jefferson County probation director.

The department has five of the SL1 units.

Those units replaced the CAM system, which the department deployed earlier in the year. CAM, which stands for continuous alcohol monitoring, uses a bracelet that detects alcohol content by measuring moisture that has evaporated from the skin.

Staff members were frustrated by the CAM system’s inaccuracy.

“We could never tell if they were using or not, essentially. We had many false positives with that,” said Jerry D. Mackey, the department’s adult unit supervisor.

The SL1 is housed in a sturdy black zippered carrying case and is composed of a Breathalyzer unit, a smartphone, a phone charger, two AAA batteries and five mouthpieces.

Todd D. Murrock, senior probation officer, outlined how the system is used before demonstrating how the unit works.

“The guy will have a schedule that’ll be made up here in the office. Lately we’ve been using it just about four times a day, usually early in the morning, like 5, 6 in the morning, usually around 11 or noon, about 5 or 6 in the afternoon and then 10 or 11 o’clock at night,” Mr. Murrock said. “They can take it with them and do it at home or work, wherever they happen to be at the time. They’ll have a preprinted schedule. If they forget, they can get a reminder texted to them on their cellphone.”

Each user follows directions from the smartphone to use the Breathalyzer properly.

The user is instructed to blow into the device for four seconds. While the user blows, a picture is taken by a tiny embedded camera. The SL1 then makes an audible clicking noise and the data are transferred via Bluetooth to the smartphone.

The smartphone, a Blackberry Curve, uploads the information to a website operated by Soberlink, along with a GPS location.

Anyone who blows into the unit and registers a positive blood alcohol content can blow again in 30 minutes.

“If they test positive then it will inform them within 30 minutes they need to blow into it again. That’s to keep from accidentally having a false positive. So if somebody has used mouthwash and then blew into it, within 30 minutes that should be gone,” Mr. Mackey said.

If the person blows again in 30 minutes and again is found to have alcohol in his system, a text message is sent to his probation officer, alerting the officer to the violation and triggering a mandatory report to the officer.

“We would bring them in and we would make a decision as to where to go from here,” Mr. Mackey said.

That person would then go before a judge, who would decide whether to give him a second chance or send him to jail.

When active, the SL1 units cost the county $6.50 per day, a fraction of the $110 per day it takes to keep someone in jail.

“Once this quarter ends, we’ll have a better idea of what the cost savings for the county would be,” said Darcy L. Pitkin, enhanced pretrial probation officer.

Beyond the cost-saving benefits, using the SL1 device streamlines the process of getting help to those who need it.

“If we want to get somebody out of jail that’s in jail, awaiting maybe placement in a substance-abuse treatment facility, we can get them out on this, using this unit, making sure they stay alcohol-free until that bed is available,” Mr. Mackey said.

On an outpatient level, the department works with Credo Community Center for the Treatment of Addiction and Samaritan Health Addiction Services, according to Mr. Murrock.

“This might accompany their outpatient if they’re involved at Credo or Samaritan; this may be a part of that. If the recommendation is for them to go inpatient, they may be released from jail early on this to await the bed because beds at an inpatient facility can take weeks to become available,” Ms. Pitkin said.

When asked how he thought the program was working since being implemented in October, Mr. Mackey described it as “fantastic.”

“We actually feel very confident with this unit that we’re actually getting correct results,” he said.

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