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Alaska law on underage drinking could see major change

On a cold Friday night earlier this month, Fairbanks Police Department officers pulled up to a South Fairbanks home in response to a report of an assault.

A 19-year-old had been heavily drinking and had allegedly attacked a family member. The teen would later record a preliminary breath-alcohol content of .260, which is more than three times the legal limit to drive.

She admitted she had problems with drinking and had had previous run-ins with police. She has six minor consuming charges on her record. The assault charge would be her first non-drinking charge.

Those charges of minor consuming could have landed the teen in court-mandated treatment for alcohol, but prosecutors declined to pursue any of the cases.

“Her previous six MCAs were dismissed, so no need in doing another one,” one of the responding officers said to another at the site of the South Fairbanks call. “Waste of your time and waste of my time.”

An inconsistent law:

The attitude of the officers is not all that uncommon in Alaska, said the director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, Cynthia Franklin.

Franklin, who is a former Anchorage prosecutor, said the current legal system with its stiff penalties that could land young people in jail for drinking has led to a system that isn’t consistently applied and isn’t effectively intervening with young people who may have an alcohol problem.

Some cases make it to court, others are dismissed, some are rerouted into alternative treatments like youth court or sentencing circles. It all depends on the law enforcement agency, the prosecutors and the court system, she said.

She said the problem was illustrated at a 2014 conference hosted by the Alaska Court System on minor consuming alcohol.

“We found out at the time that many jurisdictions are handling these offenses very differently. They look at the statutes and say, ‘That doesn’t work for us at all, we don’t want all our young people convicted and in Court View (the online database of court cases),’” she said. “Some handle it in youth court and others in circle court, or tribal court.”

The percentage of minor consuming alcohol and repeat minor consuming alcohol in the Fairbanks area that end in a conviction has dropped to about 50 percent in 2014, down from more than 60 percent in 2010, according to data provided by the Alaska Court System. The total number of charges brought also dropped from more than 300 in 2010 to about 100 in 2014.

Making a change:

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is pushing for a major overhaul of how minor consuming alcohol charges are handled. The proposal, which is contained in a complete rewrite of the state’s alcohol laws that’s currently before the Legislature, would do away with the misdemeanor penalties for minor consuming alcohol. The proposal was put together after many stakeholder meetings.

The last time the state’s alcohol laws were significantly altered was in the 1980s. Currently, a person under 21 caught for a third minor consuming charge could lose his or her driver’s license, get at least 96 hours of community work and be forced into a juvenile alcohol safety program. Failure to meet requirements like community service or the alcohol treatment program could bring the person jail time.

The punishments felt too harsh, said Alcoholic Beverage Control Board member Ellen Ganley, a Fairbanks resident.

“There’s a feeling within the court system that putting a misdemeanor on a kid’s record is too much,” she said. “It’s the kind of thing that will stay with them and affect getting into college or jobs.

” In its place, the change proposes a flat $500 ticket for people under 21 caught drinking. The ticket could be reduced with the completion of an alcohol education or treatment program within six months of the court hearing. The record would still be available online but would no longer show up labeled as a criminal offense.

Franklin said the changes are in part influenced by a growing trend of restorative justice, which ditches the older attitudes of harsh punishments in favor of penalties designed to change behaviors.

To that end is the idea of ensuring that enforcement of penalties are “swift, certain and consistent.”

Will it work?

The proposed change has skeptics.

Fairbanks Police Department Sgt. Greg Foster, who has been with the force for 17 years, agreed that inconsistent enforcement of the charges can be frustrating and discouraging, but he said in some cases a misdemeanor charge is the only way to hold some young people accountable.

“I don’t want to give up the tool we have because if it doesn’t start with us, it goes nowhere,” he said. “There is no way the District Attorney, Juvenile Intake, Juvenile Probation, OCS (Office of Children’s Services), any of the parties that have a service to provide, there is no way for them to do their job as effectively if I don’t start it.”

Foster agrees with the general feeling that underage drinking should be about changing behavior rather than about the penalty.

“I feel it’s the best opportunity to intervene and prevent them from going down a path we don’t want them to go down,” he said.

Similar concerns have been voiced by treatment advocates, who likewise feel losing the misdemeanor charge will undercut the state’s ability to address the young people with the worst problems.

Franklin acknowledged that skepticism but said the proposed change is a compromise that overall aims at ensuring that more young people see consequences for drinking and are given the opportunity to change their behavior.

“That is something that is troublesome about the rewrite, but it’s a trade off. When you go for a swift, consistent and certain punishment, you give up the escalation,” she said.

She also stressed that making the legal system easier to navigate for young people will hopefully make them more likely to take actions to change their behavior.

“(The $500 ticket is an) amount that is enough to get a young person’s attention,” she said. “There’s also a carrot, a way for a young person to take affirmative action to get the cost of the ticket reduced.”

Senate Bill 99 contains the overhaul rewrite of Title IV. It largely focuses on updating the laws surrounding the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol. It also includes some changes that are aimed at ensuring more consistent enforcement of the laws.

The Legislature is expected to take up work on the bill when it returns to regular session in January 2016.

Originally published November 6, 2015 by Matt Buxton in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

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