Judges assigned alcohol monitors under lapsed contract

Maya Dukmasova

Dozens of people in Cook County have been assigned to wear a Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring (SCRAM) device as a condition of their probation, even though the company that provides the devices in the county has been operating without a contract since January 2021.

The private vendor that provides electronic alcohol-monitoring devices to the Cook County Circuit Court has been operating without a contract for more than 18 months, Injustice Watch has learned.

Since the contract expired in January 2021, more than 200 people have been required by Cook County judges to wear the Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring (SCRAM) device as a condition of pretrial release or probation, mostly in DUI cases. CAM Systems, the private contractor that supplies the devices to Cook County, charges defendants between $12.40 and $24.40 per day to wear the monitor, according to its initial contract with the county.

After weeks of questions from Injustice Watch about the lapsed contract, James Anderson, chief financial officer for the office of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, said during a Cook County Board meeting last week that the office intends to issue a new request for proposals for alcohol-monitoring devices and begin a competitive bidding process.

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But several Cook County commissioners said they want more answers from the chief judge’s office about how the contract with CAM Systems was managed and the use of alcohol monitors in Cook County court.

After Injustice Watch brought the lapsed contract to her attention, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer introduced a resolution last week calling on the county board’s criminal justice committee to hold a hearing “to discuss the use of SCRAM devices, best practices for monitoring and accountability when issuing SCRAM devices, and contract provisions with ‘CAM Systems.’ “

In an interview, Gainer said it’s important to have a valid contract in place for any vendor, even if its product comes at no cost to the county.

“This is especially true when you’re engaged in a transaction that involves the criminal justice system because it’s not a free market for the people on the receiving end of the requirement of the judge,” Gainer said. “So there’s a greater import to make sure the pricing is transparent, competitive and fair.”

As Injustice Watch first reported last year, SCRAM is not widely known or used in Cook County and the chief judge’s office does not systematically educate or train the judiciary in its use. The ankle bracelet measures the alcohol concentration in the sweat vapor secreted by a person’s skin every 30 minutes. The manufacturer markets the device as an alternative to incarceration for “hardcore DUI offenders,” citing its ability to monitor sobriety around the clock.

According to data provided by the office of the chief judge, one Cook County judge has ordered more people to wear SCRAM devices than any other — by far. Of the 116 people on the monitor as of mid-June, 44% of them were ordered to use it by Associate Judge Gregory P. Vazquez. Injustice Watch has found that Vazquez, who hears felony cases in the west suburban Maywood courthouse, sometimes sentences people to wear SCRAM devices even when their charges aren’t alcohol-related. He did not respond to an Injustice Watch request for comment.

The number of people wearing SCRAM ankle bracelets has increased since the contract with CAM Systems lapsed in January 2021, according to the data provided by the chief judge’s office.

The office of the chief judge did not respond to questions about why judges were continuing to order people to get the device from CAM Systems when it was no longer under contract to provide it.

“Because an RFP process for a new contract is underway, we have no comment regarding past or future contract negotiations at this time,” spokesperson Mary Wisniewski wrote in an email to Injustice Watch. “We may have a further statement, pending the Cook County Board’s decision whether to hold a hearing on the use of alcohol monitoring devices.”

CAM Systems CEO Robert Nienhouse said in a statement that his company operates “without a contract as is the practice in most counties in the US”

But civil rights attorneys specializing in electronic monitoring issues found the lack of a contract troubling because the standards it established for CAM Systems’ operations — such as ensuring the privacy of the data collected by the SCRAM bracelets — no longer exist.

“It’s really pretty wild. I don’t understand why they would let this contract lapse yet still continue to use this service,” Jonathan Manes, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, said after examining CAM Systems’ original contract. “Lots of things in there are meant to protect the county and ensure the integrity of the program.”

‘It was either I eat or I pay for SCRAM.’

CAM Systems’ original contract to provide SCRAM devices in Cook County ran from January 2017 to January 2020, with a provision for two optional one-year extensions. The county’s chief procurement officer signed off on the first extension, which ran through January 2021.

After that, the office of the chief judge was supposed to ask the county board to authorize a second extension, but that never happened. A spokesperson for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office said the office of the chief judge is responsible for managing its own contracts and the procurement office isn’t required to monitor or follow up.

But two sources who worked in the county’s procurement office said that contract management is usually collaborative and that the department has the technology and ability to notify other county agencies when their contracts are expiring and remind them of their obligations to request an extension or issue a new one request for proposal. Both sources asked to remain anonymous because they still work with government agencies.

While the county did not pay CAM Systems anything for the SCRAM contract, the cost to defendants ordered to wear the device can be insurmountable.

Sal Jimenez, 39, was ordered to wear a SCRAM monitor by Judge Kerry Kennedy in 2017. He had been arrested in southwest suburban Burbank after crashing his car into a tree near his home. His blood alcohol level was over three times the legal limit.

“When I had my accident, I was going through a deep depression and instead of treating it, (drinking) was my way of treating it,” Jimenez told Injustice Watch in an interview. (He asked to use a nickname because of the nature of his case.) He was charged with a felony because he had two prior DUI convictions years earlier.

The physical and financial consequences of the crash took a heavy toll. “I almost died,” he said. He fractured a femur and had to relearn to walk after multiple surgeries. He soon lost his job — and the health insurance coverage that came with it — and saw about $30,000 in medical bills pile up. Not long after that, Jimenez could no longer afford his mortgage payments and lost his home to foreclosure.

Meanwhile, he was both under house arrest and wearing a SCRAM bracelet while awaiting the resolution of his criminal case. He had to pay CAM Systems $16.40 per day for the monitor. He made payments when he could, but gradually he fell further and further behind, according to billing ledgers reviewed by Injustice Watch.

“At the time, I wasn’t working, and I couldn’t afford it,” Jimenez said. “It was either I eat or I pay for SCRAM.” In August 2020, CAM Systems sued Jimenez for an outstanding balance of $10,653.40.

Injustice Watch found that CAM Systems filed lawsuits against 40 people in Cook County between August 2020 and June 2021 for debts totaling more than $165,000.

When asked about the lawsuits last November for the initial Injustice Watch story, Preckwinkle issued a statement vowing that her administration would be “looking into this practice” by the company.

But when pressed for details seven months later about if or how her office looked into the use of SCRAM bracelets in the court system, Preckwinkle’s office had no significant update. A statement from Preckwinkle’s spokesperson, Nick Shields, said only that his office was told “that no further contract with (CAM Systems) was pursued by the chief judge’s office and no other contract has gone before the county board.”

Preckwinkle reiterated her concerns in a recent statement to Injustice Watch. “Individuals should not have to bear the financial burden of our criminal justice system,” she wrote. “I offer my support to the Circuit Court to rectify any concerning practices by CAM Systems for SCRAM monitoring.”

According to its original contract, CAM Systems was required to provide the county with quarterly statistical reports about the people it was monitoring and the fees it was charging. The chief judge’s office did not respond to Injustice Watch’s request for the last report filed by the company. And the office and CAM Systems declined to answer questions about the total amount paid to CAM Systems by Cook County clients.

County Commissioner Brandon Johnson called the financial burden that SCRAM puts on court-involved people counterproductive.

“We have this real sickness as a country that the only way people get better is if you punish them,” Johnson said, adding that requiring people to pay for their own punishment leads them to accumulate other debts that reverberate across the community.

Jimenez knows that first hand. He had used his time on house arrest to earn a real estate broker license and was just starting to get his life and finances back on track when CAM Systems sued him for his SCRAM debt. He ultimately lost the case and was ordered to pay $11,248.84, including court costs. He tried to argue that he didn’t have that kind of money, filing two years of tax returns with the court that showed a combined salary of $32,000, but to no avail. He finally emptied his savings account and paid off the debt at the end of May, more than a year after he got off the SCRAM bracelet.

“I don’t understand how this is a program that’s allowed through the courts,” Jimenez said. “If it was paid by the county, I think it’ll be more acceptable, but you’re forced to be on something. And on top of that, you have to pay top dollar for it? That makes no sense.”

Last fall, CAM Systems’ Nienhouse told Injustice Watch that having SCRAM wearers pay for the device themselves is essential for getting people to stay sober. In a recent statement to Injustice Watch, he reiterated that his company uses “best practices in the collection of monitoring fees so that defendants are invested in their sobriety and the citizens of the County do not enable their behavior.”

But Jimenez, who acknowledged having a drinking problem in 2016, said SCRAM wasn’t what helped him quit. “Me being borderline on a deathbed, that opened my eyes,” he said.

Starting a new career, getting into a serious relationship and having a baby were also important motivators.

“The bracelet for me was a slap to the face — the system trying to dig more money out of you that you don’t have.” Wearing the monitor had no therapeutic benefit, caused a rash on his skin, and felt like “public humiliation,” he said

CAM Systems, the chief judge’s office and all other stakeholders will have an opportunity to share their views on how Cook County should run its alcohol-monitoring program at the County Board’s criminal justice committee hearing, which will take place no earlier than September.

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