By Adam Brandolph
A stiff drink will lead to stiffer fines for underage Pennsylvanians caught imbibing after Christmas Eve.
A state law that goes into effect on Dec. 25 increases the maximum fine for first offenses to $500 from $300 and subsequent offenses to $1,000 from $500. Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill into law in November.
“The more obstacles or barriers there are for the use of a substance, generally the less use there will be,” said Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Moon, which treats people for alcoholism and other substance abuse. “Any time you increase penalties, it has an impact on use.”
The legislation intends to deter underage drinking around college and university campuses, said state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
“It’s something we all need to address if you represent an area that has this type of activity,” said Fontana, whose district includes Downtown, South Side and the Strip District.
Increased fines could deter teens from drinking as long as their parents aren’t the ones footing the bill, said Stacie Sebastian, director of professional service at Outreach Teen & Family Services, a youth counseling center in Mt. Lebanon.
“Making it come out of the kid’s pocket would definitely be a deterrent. Monetary fines make us think twice about our behaviors,” Sebastian said.
Outreach Teen & Family Services runs a month-long program for first-time offenders that explains the dangers of underage drinking and using drugs and the process of addiction. It also provides tips on how to refuse alcohol.
Experts said that although underage drinking is at near-historic lows, the problem is prevalent. Sebastian said her program, one of many in Allegheny County, helps eight to 10 youths a month “and that number isn’t dropping.”
Carrick District Judge Richard G. King said he’d rather sentence underage drinkers to take classes or perform community service instead of slapping them with a higher fine. “We’re not here to make money for municipalities. We hear a case and give a proper punishment,” King said. “We have to think about whether my $100 fine for a person in Mt. Oliver hurts as much as a $500 fine in Wexford.” Fontana said the justice system — from police to judges — must work together for the law to have an effect.
“I would hope that especially on a second or third offense, (judges) would go up to that $1,000 mark. I think that’s a deterrent for an underage drinker and it sends a message to the parents,” he said. “You have to get tough if you want things to change.”