The Teton County Sheriff’s Office has implemented some new ways for defendants to stay out of jail as part of the state’s “24/7 Sobriety Program Act.”
The program’s goal is to reduce the number of repeat crimes related to substance abuse by intensive monitoring and testing.
It was introduced about a month ago and so far there are mixed feelings about it.
Under the new program, Sara King, Teton County’s alternatives to incarceration coordinator, has the ability to track alcohol violations through transdermal ankle monitors, breathalyzer tests and random drug testing.
“It was accountability that was so needed,” King said.
King said the ankle monitors allow the county to monitor defendants who might live in Alta, Teton Valley or Star Valley who cannot easily drive to and from the Teton County Jail twice per day for breath tests.
“The biggest challenge has been getting the technology up and running,” King said. “It reads their sweat, and we are finding they are very sensitive to any alcohol.”
The monitors look like regular GPS ankle devices but they’re connected through a SCRAM application, and instead of solely monitoring someone’s location they monitor alcohol or drug consumption, which would violate most defendants’ release orders.
The program also includes twice per day breath tests taken at Teton County Jail. That part of the program is similar to the court-ordered breath test program that was in place before, but now the defendants have to pay for their tests.
“It’s being billed as a way to keep people out of jail, and I am supportive of it in that sense because I don’t want people in jail,” attorney Elisabeth Trefonas said. “But the sheriff has been doing breath testing for free for decades. And the fees are not waive-able. If you’re indigent or otherwise, $4 a day ... that is a lot of money.”
Sheriff Matt Carr has promised not to arrest defendants who cannot pay the fees, unlike some other Wyoming counties.
But Trefonas, who said the fees aren’t the only holes in the program, said it was implemented without much input from defense attorneys.
She worries that the program, which is in place to keep more people out of jail, is allowing the sheriff’s office to arrest on smaller infractions.
“24/7 is strict,” she said. “It’s intentionally strict. And there aren’t ways to really tailor the program.”
For example, if defendants are 30 minutes late or more to a breathalyzer test appointment, it’s considered a missed test and they’re arrested.
They’re also arrested if the test detects any alcohol.
On one hand, county officials say that keeps the community safe if people are driving drunk to their breath tests.
“Until this program was in place the response was not automatic if someone failed a PBT [portable breath test] or a UA [urinalysis] or didn’t show up to test,” Teton County Prosecuting Attorney Erin Weisman said. “They were not being arrested. Rather, a hot test or failure to test would be addressed the next day or a few days out if over the weekend, by my office filing a motion or a petition with the Court.”
On the other hand, for those struggling with mental health issues, being on time twice a day for breath tests isn’t always the easiest task, Trefonas said.
If someone is arrested for a hot test or for being late, they’re to be seen by a judge within a reasonable amount of time, with the goal being the next day.
Trefonas said sometimes it’s been three days later, like if a client is arrested on a Friday afternoon.
“I don’t like the arresting all the time,” she said. “It clogs up the court dockets.”
Trefonas said there’s no due process between the arrests and the court appearances, as in defense attorneys have no opportunity to argue against the reasoning behind an arrest.
“What happens if you want to deny it was a problem?” Trefonas said.
Trefonas isn’t so unhappy with the program that she feels it needs to be put on hold.
But she said that’s because Teton County has compassionate judges who understand the importance of pretrial release.
“But there are things that need to be worked out,” she said.
King said she’s working with county attorneys, jail staff and defense attorneys to work out kinks in the program.
“We think it could lead to some great things,” King said.
King said she is working on ways to get some of the money collected through the breath test fees to go back into the program, like having it available to assist a defendant who cannot afford to pay.
“We’re all against the fees but it’s part of the statute,” King said.
Not even a judge can waive the test fees, per the statute. (7-13-1703)
“The state of Wyoming is forcing us to charge,” Sheriff Carr said. “If we don’t enforce it the taxpayers are on the hook.”
A quarter of the fees collected goes back to the state while 75% stays locally and can be used to help run the sobriety program.
Activist group Act Now JH said the fees make the program inequitable.
“We see Wyoming’s 24/7 payment system as an unwarranted penalty on people experiencing substance abuse,” Ivan Jimenez said. “At a cost of $4 per day that means an extra $120 a month or $1,440 a year. Poverty’s strong correlation to substance abuse also tells us that this harm will be even greater on those it intends to serve.”
The fees are part of the state statute and would have to be taken up at the legislative level or with the Wyoming Attorney General.
For more variety, King said Teton County is the only sheriff’s office in the state offering the ankle monitors as another option for those who can’t physically visit the jail twice a day. But the ankle monitor costs $5 per day.
King said she hopes with time offenders will see the program as a way to turn their lives around without having to sit in a jail cell.
“This forces us all to look past just the name and the charge,” she said. “It personalizes it.”