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Hand-held breath analyzer requires tests from offenders wherever they go

The new device, called a Smart Mobile, could complement ankle bracelets and give the court system more leeway


Courtesy photo

By Peter Cameron
The Times-Tribune

SCRANTON, Pa. — To keep people out of prison while also trying to ensure they stay sober, judges in Lackawanna County have for years used an alcohol-monitoring bracelet.

However, at more than $11 per day, and often assigned for months, the high-tech piece of jewelry can be expensive.

To bring down the cost and give some offenders a little more freedom while giving probation officers more control, the county is trying something new — a hand-held Breathalyzer device that can be issued to a client of the court, carried in a pocket and programmed to require random tests.

“We have to make sure that the recovery is foremost,” said Judge Michael Barrasse, who oversees the county’s treatment courts. “We now have the technology out there to protect society but also allow the defendant to prove that they aren’t drinking.”

Defendants facing alcohol-related charges are assigned by judges to wear a bracelet either as a condition of their release while awaiting trial or as part of their sentence.

The new device, called a Smart Mobile, could complement that and give the court system more leeway, Judge Barrasse said. It is the size of a chalkboard-eraser and looks like a cell phone with a blowing tube sticking out of the mouthpiece.

It comes from the Texas-based, for-profit company Smart Start, which boasts products including vehicle ignition interlock devices in 47 states and 16 countries.

The device can be programmed to beep and require breath tests for set windows during the day as well as at random intervals, said Jacquie Sheehey, the director of eastern operations for Smart Start. A camera built into the mobile device ensures the right person is doing the blowing. It also has a “passive” GPS system, Ms. Sheehey said. If an offender misses or fails a test, a probation officer can check where the device was at the time.

The company loaned 15 Smart Mobile devices to the county for the 90-day pilot program. The first group of offenders started using the device last month, free of charge to them and the county.

The hand-held device will eventually cost users $3 to $4 per day and has no hook-up fee, said Barbara Durkin, the coordinator for the county treatment courts. But losing or destroying the device comes with a $1,500 replacement bill, Ms. Sheehey said.

Offenders ordered to wear the alcohol-monitoring bracelet must pay a $75 hook-up fee and $11.66 per day, Ms. Durkin said. As judges often assign the bracelet for 90 days, the total cost for a person can quickly reach quadruple figures.

The bracelet must be worn next to the skin so it can sample sweat to determine the body’s alcohol content. It then provides that information to a probation officer.

The county receives 7 percent of the $2,000-3,000 collected per month for the bracelets, Lackawanna County spokesman Joe D’Arienzo said.

There are about 80 people using the bracelet; at least 231 county offenders wore it in 2014 and at least 272 in 2013, Mr. D’Arienzo said.

Judge Barrasse drew some criticism in 2009 for having personal ties to two men who started a company to administer the alcohol-monitoring bracelets to the county. He denied anything improper in the relationship including a financial interest in the company.

The county has used the bracelets since 2004. The Smart Mobile devices are distributed by the Smart Start company, and the judge said he had no personal ties to it.