Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has signed into law a bill that supporters say will make it easier to prosecute parents who host drinking parties for teenagers.
The “social host” bill makes adults liable for knowingly allowing underage drinking on their property. It applies to any private property, including deer camps or lake houses, according to Caroline Newkirk, head of Mississippians Advocating Against Underage Drinking.
The new law, which goes into effect July 1, is not likely to wipe out teenage drinking parties entirely, “but it could take care of a large majority of them,” Newkirk told the Clarion-Ledger.
A violation would be a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail.
“This definitely strengthens the law,” said Andre Conway of the Central Mississippi office of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. “We feel this law will be very effective in raising awareness and curtailing the behavior.”
Parties where teens invite their buddies over with their parents’ permission to throw open the liquor cabinet or raid a fridge full of beer are common everywhere in the state, Newkirk said.
“It is a problem statewide, but we see a lot in this community. We don’t see as many as we used to,” said Ridgeland police Sgt. Gary Davis, who works as a resource officer in Ridgeland High School.
While he applauds the new law, Davis said law enforcement can’t know about every party, especially when parents and teens make sure to keep the drinking under wraps.
“Unless a kid stumbles into a yard or there are a lot of cars at a house, we don’t know,” he said. “They’ve got it to a fine art so they’re not detected.
“There are parents hosting parties who will have the kids park at another location and they’ll shuttle them — pick them up and bring them to their house,” Davis said.
The idea of those adults is that if the teens don’t have their cars they can’t get into trouble, Davis said.
“There are so many parents who are not aware the dangers of underage drinking go beyond drinking and driving,” Newkirk said. “There are injuries that can take place without a car.”
New research shows the long-term affect alcohol can have on teenagers’ brains, Newkirk said.
“Drinking at young ages can cause irreparable brain damage.”
Currently, local officials have to rely on charging adults with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The stronger penalty and the criminal liability should make parents or other adults consider the consequences of hosting parties, Newkirk said.
According to the Alcohol Policy Information System, as of Jan. 1, 2010, eight states had social host laws specifically directed at underage drinking, while 19 other states had general hosting laws.
The bill is Senate Bill 2597.