On its face, it sounds like an idea society could get behind: Require that those accused or convicted of drunken driving be equipped with an at-home alcohol detection device as a condition of bail, probation or parole.

While it may sound good to some, it should ring alarm bells for anyone interested in due process and equitable justice.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, a Republican from Montgomery County, would give a Common Pleas judge the authority to require an alcohol-monitoring device as a condition of bail, probation or parole in cases where an individual has one or more prior driving under the influence (DUI) offenses. The cost of the device would be shouldered by the individual who is accused or who wants to be released from jail on probation or parole.

An amendment to the bill — a seeming afterthought — requires the court to consider an individual’s ability to cover the costs associated with the monitoring device.

This opportunity to avoid jail or to secure an earlier release represents a cost savings to a county: the fewer the number of people in jail, the lower the overall costs of incarceration to the county and, ultimately, the taxpayer.

However, there is another kind of price to be paid for this alternative to lockup. The option of at-home monitoring is sure to deepen the inequalities that already exist in the justice system. Those with financial resources will be far more capable of availing themselves of this at-home monitoring. Those without financial resources, not so much.

Though the court is supposed to “consider” a person’s ability to pay, the likelihood of granting this alternative at taxpayer cost is simply unrealistic. Our so-called justice system already tilts toward those with money in their bank accounts: posting bail is easier, hiring a defense attorney is easier, paying for electronic monitoring associated with home incarceration as opposed to jail incarceration would be easier.

An equally sticky fly-in-the-ointment is the inconvenient truth — a truth that happens to be a foundational premise of our justice system — that those who are accused are presumed innocent until and unless they are convicted. This alcohol-monitoring technology being introduced as a condition of bail (which is granted pretrial, emphasis on the prefix “pre”) entails a level of surveillance on the accused that conflicts with the presumption of innocence.

And if there weren’t already enough reason to give pause, there is another provision tacked onto the bill that would change the essence of a probationary program that targets nonviolent offenders with no or limited criminal history: Those accused of DUI who are applying for Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (commonly known as ARD) would be required to essentially admit their guilt such that the “non-conviction” aspect of ARD would be nullified. Currently, those who are granted admission to an ARD program do not admit guilt.

The American Civil Liberties Union is raising a red flag on this legislation and rightly so.

The state House already passed this bill by a big majority. The brakes should be applied on the enacting process — the cost exacted in terms of fairness and due process is simply too high to pay.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS

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