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Pricier buzz? Few see fines solving underage drinking

October 8, 2010
By Tricia Pursell
The Daily Item

A state senator has introduced a bill he hopes will cut down on underage drinking incidents by raising the maximum fine to $1,000, but since Valley judges typically don’t sentence first offenders with the current maximum of $300, the question remains how this new law, if passed, would really be effective.

Sen. Jake Corman (R-Benner Township, Centre County) introduced three bills Sept. 13 that would increase the maximum fine for underage drinking and public drunkenness to $1,000, make repeated underage drinking a misdemeanor, and would allow university towns to charge an additional $100 fee for alcohol-related convictions.

The existing fine for underage drinking and other summary offenses is $300 — an amount set in 1972.

Before the bench

“I generally start on the lower end of it,” said Milton District Judge William F. Kear on issuing fines for underage drinking violations.

“I try to get them to change their ways by paying a hefty fine,” he said, “but for juveniles, I do permit them to do community service work.”

However, he does call underage drinking “an escalating summary offense,” meaning the punishment gets harder for second or more violations.

If an offender is between 18 and 21, he or she can be sentenced to not just a $300 maximum fine, but up to 90 days in jail.

Pennsylvania also mandates judges to suspend the driver’s license of each convicted offender, usually 30 days for a first-time offender, and up to a year for a second offense and two years for a third offense.

First time offenders in District Judge Marvin K. Shrawder’s office, in Danville, often are issued fines of about half the maximum — $150.

If there is a second offense, Shrawder said, the fines can rise to $500, and he does maximize those.

District Judge Robert Bolton, of Sunbury, said he is also usually lenient on first-time offenders, typically issuing fines between $75 and $100.

Similarly, Judge Willis E. Savidge, in Middleburg, usually issues a $100 fine for the first offense, which is raised for second or more offenses.

So far, he said, he hasn’t given jail time, and does not get repeat offenders often at his office, which either means they are not committing the crime again, or they just aren’t getting caught.

“Over the years, I’ve tried maximum fines and light fines, probation and community service,” said District Judge Leo S. Armbruster, of Lewisburg, a college town that sees a few hundred underage drinking and public intoxication cases each year. “On occasion, a youthful offender gets a weekend in jail.”

In the 1990s, he said, mandatory driver’s license suspensions began.

“Nothing has trimmed the ambition of young people to test the waters of adolescence by drinking alcohol, and as an adjunct, smoking pot,” he said. “I’d estimate that about a quarter of kids convicted of underage alcohol violations repeat their indiscretion.”

Start with education

A higher maximum for an underage drinking fine, is not likely to solve the problem, judges believe.

It may help somewhat, Savidge said, but is not the final solution. Just like jail is not the final solution.

“If putting people in jail would cure the problem, we wouldn’t have so many people in jail,” he said.

But the fact remains, “You’ll always have new people,” he said.

And many just see a court fine as something they can make payments on overtime, so it is not a major financial setback.

Savidge believes counseling is a better way to handle the issue, educating people to not drink and thus to avoid an array of domestic problems and drinking and driving charges.

“Increasing fines is not the answer, and I’m not so sure alcohol education is the answer,” Armbruster said, “although I believe that’s the place to start.”

Getting a break

In his court, first offenders may enter a probationary program called Alternative Adjudicative Disposition, during which time Armbruster suspends proceedings for up to six months while the defendant completes a designated number of hours of community service, on non-supervised probation. He or she must pay restitution to the citing municipality and a set of court costs.

Though Armbruster realizes the program won’t necessarily take away defendants’ urge to party with friends, he believes it will cause them to stop and reflect on their behavior, while also giving back to the community for their offense.

Upon successful completion of the program, defendants may have their charges dismissed, and no license suspension is ordered.

“Ironically, if a kid can’t drive to work, he or she isn’t going to be able to pay the costs of the program,” Armbruster said. “I don’t wish to ‘sentence’ parents to have to pay their child’s monetary obligations.”

In addition, Armbruster said, just because a large fine is possible, a judge can’t necessarily impose it, “because a fine must be levied on the ability of the defendant to pay it. If the young man or woman has no income, or is dependent on parents, the fine must be reasonable.”

Second offenders, however, are generally not eligible for this special community service program, he said, and if they plead or are found guilty, are assessed a fine and have their license suspended.

In Northumberland County, the Youthful Offenders Program, which began about two months ago through the Drug and Alcohol county department, also gives first-time offenders the opportunity of having their record expunged of underage drinking charges.

Participants pay $450 and attend 14 hours of programming aied at illustrating the danger of alcohol abuse.

Their driver’s licenses are immediately suspended.

“They’re not going anywhere,” said program administrator George Florey.

And the license suspension may remain even after the program is completed if the charging officer believes it should.

While the program is aimed at getting the attention of the kids, Florey said they hope to also reach the parents, as it is not usually successful without their support.

Defendants are not eligible for the program if they commit a second offense.

“They do understand that we are very serious about this,” Florey said. “It’s not just a slap on the wrist and send them on their way — no way.”

There are 12 participants in the second Youthful Offenders Program that begins today.

Scott Sikorski, legislative director for Sen. Corman, said it is highly unlikely that Corman’s bills will be considered by Congress yet this calendar year, but he is looking to incorporate any ideas from officials and other legislators on the idea, “and really push for the bill early next year,” he said.

Judge Edward G. Mihalik Jr., in Selinsgrove, declined to speak on the issue.