By Michael Beall
If only Kayla Pedersen had remembered to turn on her headlights. She was so close to home, so close to keeping her 22-year-old record clean.
She had already made it the almost 20 miles back to Great Falls after a night of drinking at American Bar in Stockett. But remembering to turn on her headlights before driving through the city would have required some degree of sobriety.
“It was all about drinking, and it was all about covering my problems,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen hasn’t had a drink for seven months, three of those months spent with a cold plastic box strapped snug to her leg. The machine she wore was a Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor (SCRAM) bracelet, which is the size of a deck of cards. It vibrates every half hour to measure vapor that excretes from the skin.
Some say it’s like having a probation officer taped to their leg. Others say it’s like a dog collar — the kind that zaps.
But Dirk Sandefur, one of four Cascade County District judges, said it is the best tool the courts have to monitor sobriety.
“I think the defendants definitely think it is an extraordinary and unreasonable burden on their liberty, and they think it’s an extraordinary and unreasonable burden financially,” Sandefur said. “We’ll consider that, but the bottom line of the court has to be that it is a problem that they created, so the court’s primary consideration has to be if we’re putting enough restrictions on them to protect the public and not have them re-offending.”
SCRAM is a device used by municipal and district courts as a condition of bond to ensure defendants are following court orders. Sandefur said the court’s use of SCRAM is increasing, but since the system is relatively new, it’s an evolving process.
Pedersen entered the office of Arrow Bail Bonding the morning of February 21. She tried to hideher grin when Paul Jara, owner of the business and former Cascade County deputy sheriff, asked her if it was the day to remove the burden. She handed over the court order and sat across from city Judge Nancy Luth. Before Jara could remove the bracelet, he had to conduct an exit interview to gauge the program’s effectiveness. But he already knew the answers for Pedersen.
“Honestly, I think it is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Pedersen, a day before her court date. Pedersen had her first drink of alcohol when she was 15, and she began to use alcohol as a coping mechanism shortly after. She started to party in high school, and as the years added up, she found alcohol as a refuge.
Jara said people in Pederson’s situation strongly resist SCRAM at first, and the biggest issue is money. The cost of SCRAM is $10 a day, but through the exit interviews, Jara and Danielle Waltner, a SCRAM compliance officer, have found that people spent an average of $13 a day on alcohol before being in the program.
Pedersen had the same doubts as many when the bracelet was strapped on. It was uncomfortable, both on her leg and to her wallet. She would knock it about
when she walked, and it was hard on her wardrobe. “But it works,” she said. “It does its job.”
And Pedersen’s mom always reminded her, “Where would that $10 go if you didn’t wear it?”
Pedersen claims she didn’t spend a lot on alcohol. She would get her drinks for free, but the longer she thought about it, her own price tag added up. She also said she rarely drove. She normally got rides. But that night she decided to drive south to the rural town of Stockett, to the American Bar. It was away from the drama, away from the old high school crowd in Great Falls. The rest of the night got blurry. She remembers dropping off a friend, and she remembers the flashing red and blue lights. She even remembers the patrolman’s question: “Have you been drinking?”
She said she had two beers. They must have been strong beers, she remembers the patrolman say, because when she blew into the breathalyzer, it registered a 0.164 BAC — two times the legal limit. Pedersen admits she was a bit snappy with the officer. The officer told her that much alcohol would make 400-pound men slur and stumble.
“I know how to handle my alcohol,” Pedersen told the officer, but she decided to stop there.
The old Pedersen would tell the system to let people be and to get off her back. She wouldn’t wear that hunk of plastic. It took nearly three months before she noticed a difference. The more exit surveys Jara conducts, the more he begins to see a trend. “Thirty days is not too tough to kick a habit, but after 60 days they start seeing changes in the way they perform with their daily lives,” Jara said. “And after 90 then you’ll hear, ‘I didn’t realize how much money I was losing or days of work I was missing because I was drinking.’”
If Pedersen only had to wear that bracelet for two months, she said she wouldn’t have changed. She said she wasn’t addicted, but people need enough time to clean up and clear their head.
“People tell me that I look healthy again,” she said.
Pedersen wants to keep it that way. Her old friends are asking her to go to the bars again, but she’s staying strong. “One drink may lead to two or three, and I don’t want to be put in that position,” she said. She knows she can say no, but after carrying the bracelet so close to her skin for six months, she feels that this time it’s better to stay away.