Governor signs bill limiting judges’ ability to order alcohol monitoring

The measure follows an Injustice Watch investigation into abuses of the ankle bracelet program known as SCRAM.

A woman testifies before an Illinois Senate committee about a bill that would limit the use of alcohol and drug monitoring. The woman is on a screen in the middle of a wood-paneled room with a half-dozen people sitting in wooden chairs.

Courtesy of the Cook County Public Defender's office

Anastasia Strauther, who was featured in an Injustice Watch series about her experience with a court-ordered alcohol monitoring bracelet, testifies before a Illinois Senate committee before a vote on a bill that would limit the use of the monitors.

Update (Aug. 3): Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed Senate Bill 1886 into law on July 28. The bill goes into effect Jan. 1, 2024.

A measure designed to limit what advocates say are abuses of a court-ordered alcohol-monitoring bracelet passed the Illinois General Assembly over the opposition of at least one law enforcement group.

Senate Bill 1886 would eliminate fees for probationers who can’t afford them; limit judges’ ability to order probationers to stop using medically prescribed drugs, such as methadone and cannabis; and prohibit courts from requiring drug tests or monitoring devices for legal substances, such as alcohol or cannabis in cases unrelated to alcohol or substance abuse.

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The bill passed the Illinois Senate by a vote of 34-21 on March 30 and passed the Illinois House of Representatives by a vote of 75-40 on May 19. Both votes fell mostly along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans in opposition.

The measure follows a series of reports by Injustice Watch detailing how the electronic ankle bracelets, called Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitors, or SCRAM, are inconsistently applied, sometimes misused, and carry a devastating financial burden for some defendants charged fees sometimes amounting to hundreds of dollars every month.

“We shouldn’t send people to jail or prison for behavior that’s legal,” said Sarah Staudt, policy director at the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, one of many advocates for the reforms in the bill.

“We were motivated by, among other things, the work that Injustice Watch did around the SCRAM bracelets and the way people were being charged money for being on those bracelets,” Staudt said. “And we were also interested in making sure that the law on cannabis and alcohol for people on probation aligned with what the law is for everyone else.” In 2021 there were some 66,000 people on probation statewide, according to the latest available data from the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts.

State Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, who sponsored the bill, criticized the drug testing and monitoring fees charged by probation departments and private contractors on some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

“People who are working class or working poor shouldn’t face onerous fees and costs for things that are mandated on them,” Peters told Injustice Watch.

The bill establishes more clear criteria for who can afford the drug-testing fees while on probation. Standards for what makes a person eligible for relief already exist in the state’s civil code, and the bill would extend them into the code of corrections. If a probationer meets the criteria — such as being a recipient of a range of government aid programs, having an income of 125% or less of the poverty level, or if a judge determines they’re eligible based on the totality of their circumstances — the fees would be waived.

A series of Injustice Watch investigations since 2021 found the SCRAM bracelets were disproportionately ordered by one judge assigned to the west suburban Maywood courthouse. Associate Judge Gregory P. Vazquez accounted for more than a third of alcohol-monitoring devices ordered throughout Cook County in 2021, the investigations found. Bracelet administrators told Injustice Watch more than 500 monitors are issued in Cook County every year.

Injustice Watch monitored Vazquez’s courtroom over several months, observing cases in which the bracelets were assigned, sometimes to defendants whose charges had nothing to do with alcohol. There were also unrelated instances in which Vazquez ordered defendants to stop medically prescribed methadone treatment for opioid addiction, Injustice Watch found.

Vazquez declined to comment regarding the findings or on the Senate bill.

Injustice Watch also found the private vendor with the exclusive contract to provide the alcohol-monitoring device, as well as a drug-testing patch to Cook County probationers, CAM Systems, has been operating without a contract for more than two years —  a matter currently under review by the Cook County auditor.

Executives at CAM Systems declined to comment on the bill, but company CEO Robert Nienhouse has previously told Injustice Watch the fees provide a personal financial stake, which acts as an effective incentive to get some offenders to stop drinking. He also said the company offers sliding scale rates, so no one was barred from the program for their inability to pay.

The company’s records, reviewed by Injustice Watch, showed some of those monitored aren’t charged at all, while others are billed from $12 to $24 per day for the SCRAM bracelet. The company has sued dozens of probationers for nonpayment in recent years, but several of those who were sued said CAM Systems would not accept the proof they tried to provide for their inability to pay.

Staudt said the financial burden of drug and alcohol testing can destabilize people’s lives and lead to new arrests and incarceration, compromising public safety as people are pulled deeper into the criminal legal system.

“We’re all better off if we do everything we can to make sure that people on probation have stable lives,” she said.

The bill is an amendment to the state’s code of corrections. It would not affect other mandated drug testing or treatment programs for defendants on probation under the Substance Use Disorder Act, such as rehabilitation programs run by Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, also known as TASC, according to TASC’s Vice President of Policy Rebecca Levin.

State Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, was among 18 Republicans who voted against the bill, following a heated debate on the Senate floor in which he called it a “bad bill.” Three Democrats also voted no.

McClure and other opponents said they fear the measure would interfere with drug testing and treatment for people on TASC probation.

Levin disagreed and said opponents of the measure have a misunderstanding of its provisions. “This bill does not interfere with TASC probation at all,” she said. “We are not concerned at all.”

The only request to testify against the bill was filed by Illinois Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Jim Kaitschuk, who did not respond to interview requests.

Anastasia Strauther, who was ordered to wear a SCRAM monitor by Vazquez in 2021, was among the 134 individuals and organizations who requested to testify in support of the measure. She told senators in a committee hearing about her experience wearing a SCRAM bracelet while on probation for driving on a suspended license.

“It didn’t come with any [alcohol abuse] treatment, and I didn’t need any. But what it did do was make it harder for me to succeed on probation,” Strauther testified. “It weighed on me physically and mentally. I felt like the judge ordered me to SCRAM because he wanted me to fail. … There was no connection between drinking and my arrest.”

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