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State College Leaders Endorse Tougher Alcohol Penalties

September 14, 2010
by Adam Smeltz for StateCollege.com

Leaders spanning the public and private sectors converged Monday in State College to endorse tougher penalties for underage-drinking and public-drunkenness offenses in Pennsylvania.

A two-hour hearing by the state Senate Majority Policy Committee convened inside the borough municipal building, drawing testimony from representatives of three college towns — including State College; from two Penn State student representatives; and from two bar-and-restaurant operators.

Nearly all of those testifying gave unqualified endorsements of three bills introduced last week by state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte. One bill would raise the maximum fines for summary underage-drinking and public-drunkenness offenses to $1,000, up from the current maximum of $300. The current maximum was set in 1972 and no longer serves as an effective deterrent or covers law-enforcement expenses, officials testified.

Another of Corman’s bills would elevate underage drinking to a third-degree misdemeanor offense for those caught three or more times. The third bill would allow college towns to institute an additional $100 court fee for all alcohol-related violations. Monies collected from that fee could go toward local alcohol-offense-prevention units.

Corman, speaking at the hearing, said he introduced the bills in response to growing alcohol-abuse trends in the State College area, particularly over the past several years. He cited data that two thirds of all crimes reported in State College are related to alcohol. The hearing was meant to collect more public input on the issue, Corman said.

The purpose of his bills is two-fold, he explained: to serve as a deterrent and to “drive some resources to municipalities responsible for responding to all these issues.” Without the extra help from fines, municipalities are forced to lean on local taxpayers to cover the law-enforcement expenses, officials testified.

“This is just the beginning of this (legislative) process,” Corman said. He said the bills may be refined and edited with public feedback over the coming months.

“We’re hoping that this problem goes away so that we don’t have to address it anymore,” Corman added.

State College Borough Council President Ron Filippelli testified about the impact of alcohol abuse in his own neighborhood, the Highlands, home to both Penn State fraternities and permanent borough residents. He said drunken behavior has worsened over the years. Cars are vandalized, litter and public urination dirty residents’ lawns, and obscenities shouted from the streets echo well into the night, he said.

Once, Filippelli said, it took three police officers to subdue a drunk who tried to invade his home. He said it’s like living in two neighborhoods: a nice one during the day, and a public toilet at night.

“Residents believe no one outside the borough administration cares about their problem,” he said, imploring state legislators to help. ” … There’s just no sense (among many Penn State students) that non-partyers live in the neighborhood.”

Also among those testifying were State College borough Manager Tom Fountaine and police Chief Tom King. Fountaine said the borough commits about $3 million a year to address alcohol-related issues.

At Colorado State University in Fort Collins, he said, officials have seen noise-related citations decline about 40 percent since implementing stiffer fines.

King brought his own set of statistics. The number of Penn State students who take alcohol-related trips to Mount Nittany Medical Center climbed from 178 in the 2003-04 academic year to 586 in 2008-09, he said. Meanwhile, alcohol sales at State College’s state-owned liquor stores grew from $8.3 million in 1997 to $22.9 million in 2008.

Officials from West Chester and Indiana boroughs — homes to West Chester University and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, respectively — offered similar testimony.

Representing Penn State students, the president of the University Park Undergraduate Association, Christian Ragland, emphasized the importance of community relations during his prepared remarks. He suggested that if state legislators raise fines, they should make sure that a fair portion of that fine revenue goes toward educational measures.

Max Wendkos, the president of the Interfraternity Council at Penn State, said he endorses the concept of heavier penalties for specific, targeted, damage-related offenses. But he seemed to indicate that a blanket increase in fines for all underage drinking would fail to deter young drinkers. He said those drinkers are focused on instant gratification.

“Underage drinking will not stop” until society can ease the social pressures that encourage the habit, Wendkos said.

The last two locals to share testimony were Pat Daugherty, owner of the Tavern restaurant and a member of the Pennsylvania Tavern Association, and Jennifer Zangrilli, operations director for Dante’s Restaurants Inc. in State College. Zangrilli also leads the local Tavern Association.

Both testified that licensed establishments need the state to impose tougher penalties — a minimum fine of $2,000, Daugherty said — on those who attempt to enter their bars illegally.

“If we get fooled or make a mistake (in reviewing a fake ID), our consequences are severe,” Daugherty said. ” … We do not want to sell to minors.”

For establishments, the penalties for admitting an underage drinker can range from fines of $5,000 to license suspension or revocation.

Corman, in closing the hearing, said conversations about the bills will continue.

“The ultimate goal is to solve the problem,” Corman said. “Whether that’s realistic or not — I don’t know.

“But it is our goal.”