Cook County judge Vazquez’s heavy use of sobriety monitor highlights oversight gaps

A judge in a Black robe with a pile of SCRAM bracelets at his feet

Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch

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A little-known device called SCRAM made headlines about a decade ago, when the cigarette-pack-size bracelet appeared on actress Lindsay Lohan’s ankle as part of her court-ordered rehab regimen. But SCRAM — short for Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor — first hit the criminal justice market in 2003, several years before media outlets spotlighted the technology while hounding Lohan and other celebrities wrestling with substance use issues and legal woes. The SCRAM bracelet was invented in the 1990s by an electrical engineer whose college friend died in a car wreck caused by a drunken driver with five prior DUI arrests. The monitor tests the invisible sweat vapor people secrete from their skin and registers a violation if it detects alcohol.

SCRAM Systems, the Colorado-based company that makes the bracelets, advertises them as an alternative to jail and prison for people caught driving under the influence and a salve for the root causes of drunken driving: “alcohol misuse, abuse, and addiction.” By targeting drinking, SCRAM goes a step further than the more widely used ignition interlock devices (Breathalyzers installed in cars that prevent them from starting if a person has been drinking and require drivers to blow at random intervals on their trip). SCRAM supporters say ignition interlock devices are less effective because people mandated to install them in their cars can use other vehicles that aren’t registered to them and still wind up driving after drinking.

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Today, some jurisdictions across the country embrace SCRAM as a condition of pretrial release for anyone facing DUI charges or sentencing for alcohol-related crimes. Meanwhile, the device remains nearly unheard of in other places. SCRAM has been used in Illinois since 2006. But most people charged with a DUI or an alcohol-related violent offense in the Circuit Court of Cook County are unlikely to end up on the device. Unless their case lands in Room 108 at the Fourth Municipal District Courthouse, a black glass box of a building in west suburban Maywood. There, Associate Judge Gregory P. Vazquez often orders defendants to wear the SCRAM bracelets for six months or longer, maintaining total abstinence from alcohol as part of their probation.

Vazquez is a jovial and energetic man who was assigned to oversee felony cases in January after years of handling traffic court cases. He worked as a private criminal defense attorney before joining the bench in 2008, after county circuit court judges elected him to the ranks of associate judges. (Associate judges are selected by other judges, not voted in by the public.)

An investigation by Injustice Watch reviewed dozens of cases in which judges ordered defendants on SCRAM to examine how Cook County courts use the obscure technology. We found that Vazquez had ordered 36% of the county’s defendants on the device at the end of September to wear it — seven times more than the judge with the next highest number of SCRAM orders. The office of Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans doesn’t track whether judges assign SCRAM appropriately or provide oversight or guidance around how judges apply the alcohol monitor in cases. But our investigation highlights concerns about how Vazquez has used his discretion to order SCRAM.

Over two months, Injustice Watch observed Vazquez in court and reviewed his case docket to identify more than a dozen defendants who he’d ordered to wear SCRAM devices. Some appeared to fit the profile that SCRAM’s manufacturer, suppliers, and independent addiction specialists say the device is best suited for: people with multiple prior DUIs in recent months or years who could otherwise face prison time and likely struggle with substance use disorder. But the judge has also ordered at least three people to wear the device in first-time DUI cases. In several instances, Vazquez called for SCRAM use when the only charge was driving on a suspended or revoked license if the defendants had DUIs in their past.

“I’m not an alcoholic,” one woman said to Injustice Watch in frustration as she recounted being arrested for minor traffic violations and charged with driving on a suspended license twice within a year.

She’d lost her license because of her first DUI 13 years ago and then had another one six years later. She said she couldn’t restore her license because of the cost but had to keep driving for work and to shuttle around her three school-age children. Vazquez sentenced her to probation for two years with at least seven months on SCRAM when her last driving-on-a-suspended-license case wound up in his courtroom, even though her latest arrests were not for alcohol-related crimes.

As of late September, 96 people were wearing the device on orders from a Cook County judge issued between 2018 and 2021, and 35 of them were put on SCRAM by Vazquez, according to data that Injustice Watch obtained from the office of the chief judge.

SCRAM and other electronic monitors are not medical devices and aren’t subject to regulations and evaluations like other body-worn medical technologies, such as hearing aids and prosthetics. There have been reported cases of pain and swelling caused by electronic monitoring bracelets. Some people in Cook County described chafing and blisters on their skin from wearing SCRAM bracelets, even though the company that supplies the device locally provides periodic maintenance to make sure that the bracelet fits correctly and its metal receiver is clean.

Most people would still prefer wearing a SCRAM bracelet to jail or prison. But some critics, including academics and progressive local officials, see SCRAM as part of the growing trend of “e-carceration,” which has gradually moved criminal punishment beyond prison walls and into people’s homes and intimate lives. The trend is driven by the proliferation of electronic monitoring devices, for which defendants often pay. Because of the racial and class disparities inherent in the country’s criminal punishment systems, poor people of color are as disproportionately subject to e-carceration as they are to imprisonment.

SCRAM’s Colorado-based manufacturer provides the device directly to government agencies in some jurisdictions. But SCRAM is distributed in Cook County and much of Illinois by a third-party vendor, Chicago-based CAM Systems, whose contract with Cook County is set to expire next month. The private company supplies the bracelets in Cook County to more than 500 people per year and bills defendants from $12.40 to $24.40 per day for the device, though the rate is sometimes lowered depending on a person’s financial circumstances. In response to Injustice Watch’s questions about the financial burden that SCRAM places on defendants, Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle said in a statement the county “will be looking into this practice.”

“No individual who is subject to court-mandated monitoring of any kind should experience financial hardship as a result,” Preckwinkle said.

The cost of the device was a near-universal complaint among people interviewed by Injustice Watch who used to be, are currently on, or are preparing to be fitted with SCRAM devices. Some defendants said the fees that they were supposed to pay CAM Systems amounted to nearly half their monthly income.

“This shit [is] a rip-off,” wrote one man whom Vazquez sentenced to wear a SCRAM device and the drug patch that CAM Systems also provides, in a text message. “I’m paying $355 every two weeks.”

SCRAM’s boosters maintain that making defendants pay for SCRAM encourages compliance with judges’ abstinence orders and forces them to take a more active role in their recovery. But critics see that as a sign that the device is yet another lucrative business for a growing industry of private contractors looking to profit from the criminal justice system — especially when they start suing people for failing to pay.

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Police made an average of about 7,000 DUI arrests per year in Cook County from 2017 to 2020, according to the Illinois secretary of state’s latest “DUI Factbook,” published in December. About a third of the state’s traffic fatalities are related to alcohol-impaired driving, according to data published by the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 2019, as many as 314 people statewide died in alcohol-related crashes, according to the latest available federal data.

Most DUI cases involve first-time offenders, who end up in traffic court facing, at most, misdemeanor charges. The most severe of these are punishable by up to a year in prison. But for a first-time DUI, Illinois judges can grant a once-in-a-lifetime supervision sentence, which, if completed satisfactorily, keeps a person’s record clean. In 2020, for example, more than half of the state’s DUI cases ended with supervision. Felony DUI cases can be punished by anywhere from one to 30 years in prison, but in less serious cases, they are often reduced to misdemeanors after defendants agree to plead guilty. At that point, judges have the discretion to sentence people to months or years of probation.

Cook County judges also have the power to decide whether to order defendants to be placed on SCRAM immediately after an arrest or as part of a sentence. But the chief judge’s office doesn’t provide judges with education or insight about the alcohol monitoring bracelets or guidance on best practices for applying SCRAM in cases.

Vazquez declined to speak to Injustice Watch for this story. He said, “Judges don’t have freedom of speech,” and that it might be a violation of the code of judicial ethics to speak about his sentencing decisions in general terms. But he has been a proponent of SCRAM since it first made an appearance in Illinois. As a traffic court judge before his current assignment in Maywood, Vazquez sometimes assigned SCRAM as a condition of pretrial release.

Injustice Watch reviewed Vazquez’s annual financial disclosures and did not find evidence of links between the judge and the device’s manufacturer or suppliers. And because associate judges don’t run in public elections, Vazquez lacks campaign contributions to examine for potential relationships with SCRAM. The judge simply seems to be a fan of the technology. He promoted SCRAM as a viable sentencing option for DUI cases in a 2009 newsletter article published by the Illinois State Bar Association’s newsletter.

“The judge may desire not to send the defendant to jail if doing so may cause great suffering to the defendant’s family,” Vazquez wrote. “In this situation, use of SCRAM technology may provide a sentencing alternative — a condition that not only protects the public but also provides a step towards rehabilitation.”

When a defense attorney asks for SCRAM and a defendant agrees to go on the device, it would “illustrate a defendant’s sincere desire for rehabilitation, provide ‘cover’ for the skittish judge who feels jail time is the only way to avoid public criticism, and/or assist a defendant in achieving total abstinence,” Vazquez concluded.

In a statement emailed to Injustice Watch, Josh Fobes, SCRAM Systems’ Midwest sales manager, said the device “is most effective when used with hardcore DUI offenders, defined as two or more convictions.” Fobes also claimed that people who wear the device for longer than 90 days are much less likely to reoffend than those who wear it for shorter periods. SCRAM Systems advertises the device for people with multiple DUI convictions because, according to its website, “about two-thirds of those arrested for drunk or impaired driving will not re-offend.”

CAM Systems owner Robert Nienhouse said his dedication to SCRAM is about more than profit. (He referred to his work as a “pennies business” but declined to share revenue numbers.) Nienhouse said it’s unjust to incarcerate people suffering from alcohol use disorder, and that he believes in the Alcoholics Anonymous model of addiction treatment. Nienhouse described that approach as “the three legs of the stool of recovery,” consisting of counseling or therapy, total abstinence, and accountability to a higher power — be that God or a judge.

Nienhouse said more than 70% of the people his company puts on the devices in the more than 100 Midwest counties that they service are compliant the entire time that they’re on them. About a quarter are caught drinking just once while they’re on the devices. Evaluations of court programs that used the devices by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have reported compliance rates as high as 88% in some jurisdictions.

Nienhouse acknowledged that sentencing people to “total abstinence is not appropriate in most cases.” But he doesn’t think it’s responsible for the government to release people with untreated substance use disorder and a history of endangering others back into society without strings attached. His company’s primary role is to help protect the community from drunken drivers, Nienhouse said. The only advice that he gives judges about putting someone on SCRAM is that it’s better to keep them on the device for at least a year to help them overcome an alcohol addiction. Nienhouse said he used to advise judges about which cases were most appropriate to assign SCRAM in, but he stopped that practice after spending more time observing courtrooms.

“Who am I to know what’s right for that community and that courtroom?” Nienhouse said. “These judges know their community.”

The Fourth Municipal District Courthouse, where Vazquez is assigned, has jurisdiction over a broad and diverse swathe of west suburban Cook County. The courthouse sees civil, criminal, and traffic cases from largely white communities, such as La Grange and River Forest; predominantly Latinx communities, such as Melrose Park and Cicero; predominantly Black suburbs, such as Bellwood and Broadview; and relatively diverse places such as Oak Park, Forest Park, and Berwyn. Maywood, the working-class suburban village where the courthouse resides, is about 69% Black and 27% Latinx. Three judges are assigned to felony courtrooms in Maywood, including Vazquez, Geary Kull, and Ramon Ocasio III.

Injustice Watch reviewed the last 200 cases that each of the judges adjudicated between January and October, and Vazquez’s docket stood out. All three judges had issued sentences in 20 to 30 DUI and driving-on-a-suspended-license cases — usually ordering probation and sometimes short prison terms that defendants had already covered with their time in jail or on electronic monitoring before pleading guilty.

Kull’s and Ocasio’s probation sentences came with the standard conditions, such as community service, fines, and attending “victim impact panels” with groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Vazquez was the only Maywood judge who put probationers on SCRAM, including half the defendants he sentenced for DUIs and driving on a suspended license, all of whom pleaded guilty and most of whom had their felony charges reduced to misdemeanors. In some of the 13 cases we reviewed in which Vazquez put defendants on SCRAM probation, he also waived all the person’s court fines and fees, which can run as high as $3,500, and their $50 monthly probation bill. And in a departure from state sentencing guidelines, Vazquez has even waived defendants’ participation in community service and victim impact panels.

Three of the defendants Vazquez ordered to be on SCRAM devices in the cases reviewed by Injustice Watch were compelled to wear them even though prosecutors hadn’t charged them with any alcohol-related offenses. Arrest reports show that one of the people ordered to wear SCRAM had been apprehended by Bellwood police after he caused a minor car crash and cops found marijuana in his car. He wasn’t charged with DUI and pleaded guilty to driving on a suspended license. The man said that his last DUI arrest was over a decade ago, and court records show he hasn’t faced any other charges in Cook County related to substance use.

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Injustice Watch could not identify studies proving SCRAM’s long-term impacts on wearers’ sobriety or recovery from alcohol use. A 2013 evaluation of a sobriety program that uses SCRAM in South Dakota found that people didn’t sustain behavior changes after authorities removed the device. A 2015 study by the NHTSA that evaluated recidivism among people arrested for DUIs and assigned to SCRAM in Wisconsin and Nebraska yielded similar findings.

It’s important to note that people commonly relapse within their first year of recovery. It’s possible that the people assigned to SCRAM in these studies weren’t sober long enough to overcome alcohol addiction. In the North Dakota study, participants wore the bracelet for 70 days on average. Participants in the Wisconsin and Nebraska studies wore the bracelet an average of 85 and 87 days, respectively. No one has evaluated DUI recidivism among people assigned to SCRAM in Cook County.

Many addiction specialists see a prolonged period of total abstinence as crucial to alcohol abuse rehabilitation. Staying sober allows a person’s brain to repair, restoring cognitive functions that chronic drinking can dampen. Some treatment providers use SCRAM to help clients who have a hard time staying sober. John Franklin, an addiction psychiatrist and the interim chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said he’d encountered SCRAM and other similar devices over 35 years of working with people who have substance use disorders. The technology can be a helpful tool for people who repeatedly struggle with relapses while in rehab. But Franklin said “it would not be something that everyone would be put on as step one in the process.”

Abstinence is one treatment option, but it isn’t the only way to combat a substance use disorder. Some medications can help people drink less, reduce cravings, or develop an aversion to alcohol.

“Some people feel very strongly that abstinence is the only way to get healed from alcoholism, and the science doesn’t necessarily support that 100% of the time,” said John Umhau, an addiction medicine specialist. He spent 20 years as a researcher at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Umhau now treats patients with alcohol use disorder in his private practice.

Some of his clients experience medication-assisted recovery as a “godsend,” Umhau said. However, he said he sees the benefits of SCRAM as an alternative to prison that also protects the public from drunken drivers, even if he doesn’t use the device in his practice. Locking people up comes at a tremendous cost to taxpayers and defendants and provides little therapeutic value to those struggling with a substance use disorder. But Umhau and Franklin stressed that no treatment for a substance use disorder should be applied uniformly and without clinical evaluation.

Injustice Watch spoke with 12 current and former SCRAM participants about their experiences, as well as 10 attorneys. Nearly all the people we spoke to who wore the bracelet in Cook County were ordered to do so by Vazquez. Most of them had never heard of the technology before. Some acknowledged that they’d had ongoing problems with drinking and driving, while others were baffled that the court required them to stay sober. (Injustice Watch is not disclosing interviewees names per their requests and their attorneys’ concerns that speaking out about SCRAM might lead to retribution from Vazquez.)

“It has been two months that I haven’t drank, and it’s been helping me,” said one Cicero man in his early 40s whose fourth DUI case landed him in Room 108 at the Fourth Municipal District Courthouse after he struck a parked vehicle one evening last winter. He plead guilty, and told Injustice Watch that 18 months of SCRAM sounded better than 18 months behind bars.

“After I got arrested for DUI, I stopped drinking,” another man, who’d never been charged with drunken driving before, told Injustice Watch. “Even before I agreed to wearing SCRAM, six months prior, I already stopped drinking.”

The man, also in his 40s and from Berwyn, said he’d found attending AA meetings helpful and didn’t think SCRAM was necessary.

A man in his 20s, who was in Vazquez’s courtroom for a second DUI within a year after being pulled over in Franklin Park, said the device helped keep him from drinking but that it felt like overkill. He said he only drank socially, and both of his DUIs, nine months apart, didn’t reflect an out-of-control habit.

“It’s a really intense way for you to stop drinking,” he said. “I think for me it was two bad decisions I made that cost me my license and all this money. Basically, I don’t think alcohol was a problem in my life.”

In 2012, CAM Systems conducted anonymous surveys in Illinois with people as they were being taken off the bracelet. Nienhouse shared more than 70 of those survey responses with Injustice Watch. Some respondents gave neutral or negative comments. Others shared that wearing SCRAM left them better off.

“It really helps once you have no choice but [refrain] from drinking,” wrote one Cook County participant who admitted to spending $20 per day on alcohol before SCRAM.

A SCRAM participant from Peoria County, in central Illinois, wrote that the device was “great at encouraging the body to feel pleasure in everyday life events without need for drinking.” Another commented that, “It helped save my life and spend more time with my family. They trust me now.”

Ninety-two percent of the respondents said wearing the device stopped them from drinking, and 82% said they’d recommend SCRAM “for people who may have an alcohol problem.”

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Illustration of Judge Gregory Vazquez

Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch

Whether someone has an “alcohol problem” is ultimately a clinical diagnosis, not a matter of personal opinion or for a judge to decide. According to Illinois law, an agency licensed with the Illinois Department of Human Services is supposed to give defendants in DUI cases a clinical evaluation before a judge sentences them. The assessment, which costs defendants in Cook County $250, determines the severity of a person’s substance use. Judges then get a confidential report to guide their sentencing decisions. While the law appears to require the evaluation, it doesn’t require judges to order recommended treatment, though they usually do.

However, on Sept. 13, the presiding judge of the Fourth Municipal District, Judge Cheyrl Ingram, wrote in an email to court staff that while conducting a presentencing assessment is considered best practice, the evaluation is optional. She cited a 1988 Illinois Supreme Court decision to support her interpretation of the law and urged evaluations to be conducted after a sentence to move caseloads along. Vazquez, who’s assigned defendants to SCRAM as a condition of pretrial release, in which the treatment evaluations don’t play a role at all, appeared to welcome Ingram’s directive. In late September, Injustice Watch observed several cases in which he told attorneys that their clients didn’t have to be evaluated for substance use disorder before he sentenced them.

Though the evaluation aims to help individually tailor judges’ treatment orders for drug or alcohol abuse, in court, Vazquez is vocal about his belief in abstinence-only treatment for anyone he deems to have a substance use problem. In a recent example, he ordered a man pleading guilty to a repeat DUI not only to get on SCRAM and a drug patch but also to taper off methadone, which is used to treat addiction to heroin and other opiates.

Vazquez’s orders for abstinence are part of a litany of unusual things that happen in Room 108 at the Fourth Municipal District Courthouse.

The judge is an avid jokester whose tone and demeanor often teeters between amusement and irritation. During Injustice Watch’s time observing Vazquez, he often required people to take off their masks to speak to him in court, frequently expressed frustration at using Zoom videoconferencing, and in numerous instances demanded that attorneys and defendants appearing online come to Maywood in person. When defendants appeared on Zoom while their lawyer showed up in person, the judge often stayed muted as he discussed their case with attorneys in open court.

Vazquez also requires prosecutors and defense lawyers to have off-the-record conferences with him if they want him to go along with any plea deals that they come up with, be it for charges of murder or shoplifting. All plea arrangements are ultimately subject to a judge’s approval. But, according to attorneys who spoke with Injustice Watch, in Cook County, judges typically approve the terms of the agreement that prosecutors present to them without requiring what’s known as a “402 conference” between the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney—unless the case involves a serious violent crime. During these conferences, the judge may learn things about a defendant’s past and case circumstances, including hearsay, that he normally wouldn’t know outside a trial.

“If there’s no 402, it’s a blind plea, and then the maximum [sentence] is always in play,” he sternly admonished a prosecutor who thought he’d had his case squared away one day in early November. Though the prosecutor had reached a deal with the defense attorney in the case and the defendant was ready to plead guilty, the negotiations now had to start from scratch with Vazquez present.

Vazquez’s court call can drag on hours longer than the other judges’ who preside over felony cases at the courthouse, as he and the attorneys disappear for long stretches into the chambers behind his bench. The defendants are usually left to wait in the courtroom, along with the rest of the court staff, wondering what’s going on.

“Does he, like, have breakfast and lunch back there?” a court reporter, exasperated by the wait, asked another staffer as a recent pause in proceedings stretched to 45 minutes.

When the judge reemerges from his chambers and proceedings resume, not everything he says in court always appears in the official court record. One day in November, after making some jokes about an attorney acting like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for making a remark about Covid-19 safety, Vazquez turned to the court reporter and admonished her to stop typing. “Not until I say a case name, you know that’s how it works,” he said.

When Injustice Watch asked the chief judge’s office for comment on this practice, a spokesperson replied that “judicial conduct is a matter for the Judicial Inquiry Board,” citing the state constitution. However, as a matter of policy the Board does not comment on judicial conduct other than through official sanctions. No such sanctions have been issued against Vazquez.

Several defense attorneys interviewed by Injustice Watch described Vazquez as a “pro-defense” or “defense-oriented” judge. Nevertheless, the prosecutors assigned to Vazquez’s courtroom seem comfortable with his approach to using SCRAM in cases. Over seven days of observing court proceedings this fall, Injustice Watch never heard a prosecutor ask for more stringent punishment for a defendant only to have Vazquez opt for probation with SCRAM.

A spokesperson for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office wrote in a statement to Injustice Watch that the office supports “sentencing alternatives to incarceration” in the interest of making the justice system more equitable. “Being held accountable for a crime does not always mean a prison sentence.”

Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. said his office also welcomed “the use of alternatives to incarceration” such as SCRAM in a written statement to Injustice Watch. But he said “each accused person should be evaluated individually, and the blanket issuance of an intervention like the SCRAM device … is entirely inappropriate.”

Mitchell said he was especially alarmed about cases when alcohol-related allegations aren’t involved, but judges order SCRAM anyway. He also expressed concern about the cost of the device for defendants, citing “routine practice” in the criminal legal system of ignoring defendants’ financial situations. “The impacts of those blind spots,” he said, “can unwittingly lead people right back into the system or serve [as] an extra punishment that is only felt by the poor.”

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The sliding scale rates that CAM Systems currently offers defendants range from $12.40 per day for people making $0 to $20,000 per year to $24.40 per day for people making more than $70,000 per year, according to records from the office of the chief judge. These costs add up to between $372 and $732 per month, respectively. CAM Systems deducts $1 from the daily rate for each dependent child. The company charges the defendants a $170 flat fee covering installation, periodic maintenance, and removal. Other charges can arise, from damage to the device or service calls that require CAM Systems staff to visit people’s homes. Each violation, including drinking alcohol or tampering with the device, comes with a $110 fee.

CAM Systems also “reserves the right to charge fees less than above,” according to the company’s contract with Cook County.

One attorney who’s represented people with DUI cases in Vazquez’s courtroom said CAM Systems constantly tells his clients “that they’ll have to pay more than the judge represented,” despite the sliding scale. The attorney asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from Vazquez toward clients, like all the other lawyers who spoke with Injustice Watch.

One man currently on the device is paying more than $170 per week. He wound up on SCRAM after police responded to a fender bender that he caused in Bellwood, arrested him for driving on a suspended license, and Vazquez saw that he’d had a DUI in his past. The man said CAM Systems used his 2020 tax return to determine how much he should pay for the device, but that the document no longer reflected his financial circumstances because his income had decreased from $60,000 to less than $38,000.

“We had access to all the overtime we wanted because of the pandemic,” he said. “I was already living check to check. Now, I’m one month [behind] in my rent and car note and always playing catch-up.”

Another man who recently appeared before Vazquez via Zoom from a jail lockup was arrested in mid-November for driving on a suspended license in Chicago. That was after Vazquez had sentenced him to wear a SCRAM device on a DUI case that he picked up in Cicero earlier in the year. The judge wanted to know why he hadn’t gotten the device yet. “I called the SCRAM people,” the man explained. “They told me I have to pay like $400.”

Vazquez said the price would be lower if he showed proof of income.

“They usually tell you the higher amount to force you to prove that you’d get a lower amount,” Vazquez explained, suggesting that the man also get help paying for the device from his fiancee, who was on Zoom call. “That’s what fiances are for.”

Nienhouse disputed that SCRAM is too expensive. He said CAM Systems sometimes charges lower fees when the company knows that a person is experiencing a hardship — provided that defendants communicate their needs and share the requested documentation.

“We agree with the public defender; the cost of this should not be a barrier at all,” he said.

Nienhouse touted the company’s “extremely high collections rate” as evidence that its sliding scale price structure works. CAM Systems boasts a 95% collections record, according to a company profile published by the manufacturer. “Affordability is not the problem,” Nienhouse said.

Some people still struggle to make payments or eventually stop paying altogether. In some of  those cases, CAM Systems has resorted to taking people to court.

The company has filed civil lawsuits against 40 people for nonpayment since last year, according to a docket review by Injustice Watch. In total, the company has sought to recoup some $166,000 in unpaid fees through civil suits; the defendants owe them on average $4,000 each and judgments have been entered against 31 of them, while the remaining cases are pending.

Teresa Romanenko, 41, went on SCRAM more than two years ago when her first-time DUI case ended up on Vazquez’s docket in traffic court, and he ordered the bracelet as a pretrial condition. Northlake police had arrested her in June 2019 after she crashed into a tree following a night out at a bar with a friend. Romanenko recalls the wreck happened around the anniversary of her fiance’s death. She remembers getting her friend home safe that night, but not the crash. In an interview, she said a SCRAM bracelet seemed like a better alternative than the ignition interlock, which she worried could be spotted by her co-workers at the airport, where she had a cabin cleaning job.

Romanenko said she went to the CAM Systems office in the Loop to get fitted with the device in August 2019, and that the bracelet was fastened so tight that it rubbed her skin raw. She also remembers that sleeping with the device was uncomfortable. But “it was the cost that was killing me more than the bracelet,” she said.

Romanenko was surprised by how much CAM Systems would be charging her: about $80 weekly. At first, she was able to make the payments. But in November, a workplace injury forced her to stop working. She lost her income and was no longer able to pay CAM Systems. Romanenko said she reported her situation to the company; she shared emails with Injustice Watch in which she sent the company a doctor’s note stating that she couldn’t work and proof that she was receiving Medicaid and food stamps.

Soon after that, she remembers a CAM Systems employee calling her. “He goes,” Romanenko said, “‘You need to make a payment. Ask your kids, ask your parents.’”

Romanenko said her family wasn’t able to offer her that kind of financial assistance, and she wouldn’t ask them anyway. “I’m not gonna sit there and ask my parents or my kids  for the money for my mistake.”

According to CAM Systems, Romanenko was already given a reduced rate when she first came onto the device. Nienhouse said the company was prepared to lower her fee if she provided proof of her changed financial circumstances, such as a termination notice from work or unemployment paperwork but said they never received it. Romanenko said at the time she didn’t yet have workers’ compensation paperwork — which she is still waiting to receive.

CAM Systems continued to invoice Romanenko until, she said, she eventually cut the bracelet off her leg in April 2020. By then, she owed about $1,500. She’d already worn the bracelet for nearly nine months and was compliant with the court’s order. She said her lawyer told her to remove and return the device to the company after a judge sentenced her to probation in her case. The sentencing judge didn’t require her to keep wearing the device.

A year later, CAM Systems filed a lawsuit against her in small claims court.

Nienhouse explained that filing these small claims lawsuits is a recent strategy that his company developed to protect their business and to make sure that people know that they must pay.

“Once you get a significant percentage of people not paying, then the program is dead,” he said.

He added that the need for such lawsuits is scarce, and that CAM Systems is targeting people they think can afford the money but are refusing to pay or “who are gaming the system.”

In August, Judge Maire Aileen Dempsey ruled in the company’s favor in its case against Romanenko and ordered her to pay about $1,900. The ruling will allow CAM Systems to take more aggressive collections measures, such as garnishing Romanenko’s paycheck when she finds another job, something she said she’s “very worried” about, adding that the judgment has already shown up on her credit history.

Romanenko said she knew about the lawsuit but didn’t bother going to court because she didn’t have the money. The week before Thanksgiving, she was served with a court order to disclose the state of her assets.

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Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch

Vazquez, Nienhouse, and the addiction specialists interviewed by Injustice Watch see SCRAM as a humane and therapeutic alternative to incarceration and a boon to public safety. But others see it as part of a growing trend of e-carceration in the United States.

In a 2018 op-ed in The New York Times, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, urged caution about electronic monitoring technologies. Proponents of these devices “rightly point out that an ankle bracelet is preferable to a prison cell,” she wrote, but given the racial disparities that persist in the legal system, “digital prisons are to mass incarceration what Jim Crow was to slavery.”

The chief judge’s office did not provide demographic information about the 172 defendants who were on SCRAM at the end of September. But “we know the use is racialized because it’s in a racialized criminal legal system,” said James Kilgore, director of the Challenging E-Carceration Project at MediaJustice and author of Understanding E-Carceration.

To Kilgore, who was convicted for being part of a deadly bank robbery in the 1970s and spent time on an electronic monitor while on parole, SCRAM is “not the most egregious example” of the growing trend of moving incarceration from jails and prisons into people’s homes. But he warns that those concerned about the perpetuation of racism and class biases through criminal punishment should closely observe its physical and financial effect on people of color and low-income households.

An average of about 2,000 non-traffic court DUI cases were filed in Cook County every year between 2000 and 2018, the vast majority of them felonies, according to an analysis of court data by The Circuit, a project led by Injustice Watch and the Better Government Association in partnership with civic tech consulting company DataMade. Less than one-third of the defendants were white; 42% were Latinx; and 23% were Black. Ninety percent of the people charged were men. Latinx defendants are overrepresented compared to their proportion of the county’s population, which has grown to about one-quarter, according to data from the 2020 census.

Meanwhile, about a thousand cases per year were also filed between 2000 and 2018 for driving on a suspended or a revoked license, according to The Circuit. These charges, filed against men 94% of the time, disproportionately impacted Black people, who made up nearly half of the defendants. About a quarter were Latinx, and a quarter were white. Restoring a suspended license is a complicated administrative process that costs hundreds of dollars and usually requires an attorney.

Kilgore thinks that the county shouldn’t transfer the costs of punishing people for crime to defendants, especially those who can least afford it. “That’s why we pay taxes — it’s one of the chief functions of government to run the criminal legal system,” he said.

When Injustice Watch reached out to local officials and activists focused on electronic monitoring to ask about SCRAM, most responded that they weren’t even aware of the technology. The device hadn’t been on the radar of the Cook County Justice Advisory Council, which tracks the use of electronic monitoring for pretrial house arrest. The council’s deputy director, Ali Abid, was surprised to hear that CAM Systems was charging defendants directly for the device. He said financial hardship caused by a sentencing alternative could “undermine a person’s recovery or long-term success in the community.”

“Typically, fees related to court-ordered monitoring are charged by county agencies and are often waived by judges,” Abid said.

In a statement, Cook County Board President Preckwinkle announced that the county plans to take a closer look at SCRAM, and she expressed concern about the recent lawsuits filed by CAM Systems and the costs of SCRAM for defendants. “I would like to see these cases resolved and the fee structure examined, so individuals going through our justice system are not responsible for the cost of monitoring,” she said in the statement.

But Nienhouse, whose company is also a vendor for house arrest ankle bracelets, claims that moving from a model in which offenders pay for SCRAM to one in which the county foots the bill may cause more harm than good. “It’s different from GPS or house arrest because here we need the motivation of the person to make a real difficult change in their lives,” he said. “Counties should pay for [electronically monitored house arrest], and we recommend they do that. But alcohol is just completely different.”

Nienhouse also argued that moving the program into the county budget would put it at risk of future cuts or for the money allocated for SCRAM to be repurposed for something else eventually. Currently, Ninehouse said, no counties in Illinois fund SCRAM exclusively out of their budgets, though a few jurisdictions, such as DeKalb County, provide some grant funding in addition to having defendants pay for the devices.

In addition to describing the cost of the devices as a significant burden, all the wearers interviewed by Injustice Watch said it made them feel stigmatized, caused at least some physical discomfort, and disrupted their sleep.

Though CAM Systems tells people not to use alcohol-based mouthwash, perfume, and household cleaners while wearing the bracelet, SCRAM readings can distinguish between someone who drank a beer and a person who just spilled one on the device.

Still, one man who had had the device removed after completing nine months in September described constantly worrying about accidentally setting it off while he wore it. “I was freaking out every day about it. I was worried about the shampoo we use,” he said, adding that the vibrations of the device as it took a reading every 30 minutes kept him up at night.

Last year, Kilgore documented the experiences of one man from Joliet who developed a severe skin condition while wearing the SCRAM bracelet provided directly by SCRAM Systems. When asked about the incident, Fobes said clients are responsible for notifying the company of allergic reactions to the device so that removal can be arranged, as it ultimately was in this case.

Kilgore also introduced Injustice Watch to a man in Michigan, who was arrested for a DUI in October 2020 and spent one month on the device earlier this year as part of his probation sentence. The man said the device was beneficial as he worked to get sober, and that he’s now in his “sincerest, longest period” of being alcohol-free. However, the bracelet left markings on his skin that haven’t gone away seven months after he had it removed. He said he experienced burning sensations and worried about the longer-term effects of the constant transmission of wireless signals around his body.

“The concept is a good idea,” he said, but SCRAM “continuously wore on my psychological being.”

CAM Systems is currently in the last year of its five-year contract agreement with Cook County to provide the devices.

Still, Nienhouse hopes that his relationship with the county continues, and that the program gains traction through new training led by judges who already know and use SCRAM. Just as the chief judge’s office has not trained judges in best practices for the use of SCRAM in the past, a spokeswoman could not confirm plans to provide judges with training in the future.

For now, the use of SCRAM remains dependent on the whims and preferences of individual judges such as Vazquez. People displeased with his sentencing philosophies have little recourse for challenging him because, as an associate judge, Vazquez isn’t beholden to voters. Circuit court judges last reelected him to another four-year term in 2020.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of people who were on the SCRAM device in Cook County as of September 2021 and the proportion who had been assigned to SCRAM by Judge Vazquez.