More Laws Seek to Punish Parents to Deter Underage Drinking

August 29, 2006

Local laws aimed at punishing parents who look the other way when teenagers drink alcohol in their homes are gaining momentum across the country, participants in a national conference addressing underage drinking said.

Steep fines and bills for police response have been focusing closer parental attention to the problem.

This year, the Simi Valley City Council joined several other municipalities in California’s Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, by adopting a new ordinance designed to stop underage drinking at parties in private homes. Under the measure, adult hosts can get hit with fines as high as $1,000.

Dan Hicks of the Ventura County Behavioral Health Department said the law already has drastically reduced the number of underage drinking parties police have had to respond to this summer.

“The word is out that if you are going to have a home party you are going to get a citation if it’s an underage drinking party,” said Hicks, who is coordinator of the Ventura County Limits project, an initiative aimed at reducing underage and binge drinking throughout the county.
Hicks and other proponents of ordinances known as civil host liability laws were attending the 7th Annual National Leadership Conference, which bills itself as the world’s largest conference addressing concerns about underage drinking. About 1,500 researchers, law enforcement officials and underage drinking prevention advocates gathered in Baltimore for the conference.

Advocates say a large amount of underage binge drinking occurs in homes where drinking is condoned.

Although many states have laws on the books against parents hosting parties involving alcohol for minors, advocates say criminal laws often are not enforced because of difficulties proving that parents know alcohol is being used at their children’s parties.

Enforcing criminal laws and leading parents away in handcuffs often doesn’t achieve the desired effect of prevention, anyway.

“You want them to be thinking before the party’s planned, before things start happening,” Hicks said.

City and county ordinances are easier to enforce with support from local organizations, supporters of civil host laws say.

“What that does is it ups the chance that you’re going to create a deterrent and that’s because you’re going to have more likelihood that law enforcement people are actually going to use it,” said James Mosher, an attorney for the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation who attended the conference.

Recent innovative approaches to cracking down on house parties, which can involve hundreds of underage drinkers, have been taking root in city and county governments.

“Those are where the action is lately, because communities realize they need to tailor these laws to local concerns,” said Stacy Seatta, a legal policy researcher for PIRE.

In New York this month, the Long Beach City Council approved a measure making it a crime for adults to serve alcohol to underage drinkers in their homes. The law carries a $250 fine and up to 15 days in jail.

Patricia Hincken, director of family alcoholism and chemical dependency treatment services at Long Beach Medical Center, said parents often do not realize how much their children are drinking. She said the legislation was passed to encourage adults to take underage drinking more seriously.

“This one we felt was very key because it addresses the issue of it being an adult problem and changing the perception that it’s youth who are the issue instead of adults,” she said.

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