Will Higher Fines Reduce Underage Drinking in State College?

Penn State Underage Drinking Problem

Centre County Senator Jake Corman has proposed amendments to Pennsylvania law that would increase the maximum fine for Underage Drinking and Public Drunkenness to $1,000.00. I believe that it is safe to presume that Senator Corman’s proposal was not intended to garner votes amongst the 40,000 Penn State students at University Park but was instead a response to local State College residents that complain about alcohol consumption by the Penn State students. Admittedly, the presence of the students does create additional costs for the county in the way of police and emergency medical personnel, but many of the local businesses that locals enjoy are also here because of the students and the university.

What Can Be Done to Combat Criminal Behavior?

I am opposed to hitting Penn State students in their wallets and pocket books as I do not believe that the proposed increase in fines will be effective. I believe that deterrence can better be achieved by alcohol education programs, community service, and intervention by the court. In a normal situation, a person charged with Underage Drinking receives a citation, similar to speeding. The person can plead guilty, pay the fine, and thereby never go before a judge or otherwise truly understand what actually transpired. For example, many Penn State students are not aware that a guilty plea will result in the suspension of Pennsylvania driving privileges, and the guilty plea also means that the person has now been convicted of a criminal offense that is likely to appear on criminal background searches. The thought is that the Underage Drinking citation is the same as a speeding ticket. If a person is advised of the adverse consequences associated with a conviction of Underage Drinking, the penalties and punishments may actually have a deterrent effect.

Simply being required to appear before a judge to answer to the charges is often an intimidating situation, and that direct interaction with the court that can reinforce the negative consequences associated with Underage Drinking. By appearing in court, judges can also require students to give back to the State College community by completing community service in lieu of or in addition to  fines. Fines and court costs are often paid by parents, so the direct impact on the student is often minimal, whereas the community service requirement places the punishment squarely on the shoulders of the Underage Drinker. With an Underage Drinker before a judge, the judge can also explain that Underage Drinking is a criminal offense that will appear on many background searches, and a conviction will result in the suspension of Pennsylvania driving privileges.

Alternative Dispositions in State College Summary Cases

As an experienced State College Underage Drinking attorney, n Centre County, many of the local police officers support agreements that require the Underage Drinking to complete community service in exchange for a reduction of the fine or possibly a dismissal of the charge, and the judges often approve of such agreements. The person charged with the summary offense must still pay court costs to alleviate the financial burden on the court system, but the student then atones for his or her offense by completing community service.

When it appears that the Penn State student has a problem with either addiction or alcohol abuse, some judges are creative in accepting agreements that reduce fines or other punishments if the student voluntarily completes alcohol counseling. I once had a client that was charged with Underage Drinking and Public Drunkenness on back to back days. Under the proposed changes, my client would have been facing $4,000.00 in fines and probably would have withdrawn from school to pay the fines and costs. I was fortunate to have a compassionate State College Police Officer handling one set of charges, and an agreement was reached that required my client to plead guilty to one set of charges and plead guilty to the second Public Drunkenness charge. The officer agreed to withdraw the second Underage Drinking charge and thereby avoid a 2 year license suspension if the client attended Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings. The client attended the required meetings and obtained the favorable resolution in his Underage Drinking case. More importantly, I received an email from my client’s mother thanking me for returning the son that she believed she had lost a few years ago due to excessive drinking.

In this situation, the excess fines probably would have led to the client’s withdrawal from school, and the withdrawal from school quite possibly would have led to an increased use of alcohol. Instead of using maximum fines and additional penalties to “fix” the alcohol problem, an officer agreed to give the client an incentive to seek rehabilitation programs to fix the problem. This solution will not work in every case, but I believe that this approach will have a much higher success rate than a major increase in fines. I believe that the current law is sufficient to reduce Underage Drinking, but the current system needs to be changed to increase alternative punishments instead of just issuing fines.