Most of us attended at least one house party as young people. Red solo cups adorned every surface, a game of beer pong was underway in the dining room, loud music played through speakers. For some of us, this happened in high school when a friend’s parent was away. For others, it was a college dorm room or frat house.
Sometimes the parties ended anti-climactically. Other times, there was the shouted warning of cops on the scene, and the ensuing chaos as underage drinkers dispersed, jumping fences and sprinting in all directions.
To be clear, though many of us would have to admit to drinking before age 21, it’s not something that should be encouraged or glorified. At the same time, it’s also not something that young people should be jailed for.
And the Casper City Council is taking steps to allow just that.
We strongly urge them to reconsider.
The Council’s vote, just one of three that needs to occur before the move is official, aims to allow municipal court judges to sentence minors charged with possession of alcohol to up to six months in jail. And though the proponents of the measure insist that the primary function of the law would be to allow judges to mete out probation sentences rather than jail time, we disagree with even giving judges the options of jailing a young person simply for possessing alcohol.
One red flag is the thinking by two council members, one a former judge, that the cost of legal fees when the minors seek representation won’t burden the city because most minors won’t seek representation in the first place. This thinking is alarming, because it implies that minors aren’t knowledgeable enough about their rights to seek legal representation and due process. And it also implies that the city aims to take advantage of that ignorance.
If a Council member’s child was facing these charges, you can be sure that they’d be represented by an attorney and seek a trial.
It’s also important to note that the reason the court is seeking this ordinance by the city is because until last summer, its municipal court had been illegally sentencing minors to probation for just such offenses. Current councilman Dallas Laird, an attorney, represented a case that eventually reached the Wyoming Supreme Court, and that asserted city law prohibited sentencing minors to probation.
In other words, the court was illegally sentencing minors. It was told to stop. And now it’s seeking to legalize the illegal thing it was doing. And that motivation is rather unsavory, to say the least.
We acknowledge that drinking culture is certainly pervasive; the consequences of overdrinking can be severe. And a tendency toward addiction can take root early in a person’s life. So it’s understandable that the city wants to do something about an abundance of underage drinking.
But this is not the correct solution. If underage drinking is a problem, there are programs to deter it that don’t involve forcing young people into the criminal justice system. There are options that don’t involve the mistake of drinking a beer at a party marring your record and making it harder to find a job.
Using the criminal justice system to deter people from drinking hasn’t achieved much in the way of success. Its equivalent offense for adult drinkers, public intoxication, certainly doesn’t deter the crime.
For those who would say drinking can lead to more serious crimes such as drunken driving and assault, we would note there are already laws on the books to deter such behaviors.
Simply put, we doubt tossing young people into the system will take them off of a path of crime. Finding a solution to Casper’s underage drinking problem is possible. But that solution is not, and never will be, putting minors in jail.