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Teen drinkers undaunted by enforcement

 

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If Havre police are known for anything among Havre's young people, it's their intolerance for youths who drink.

Some call it zero tolerance, buzzwords adopted when the HELP Committee launched an effort in 1998 to publicize Montana law.

Zero tolerance "is not a policy of the Havre Police Department," Havre Police Chief Kevin Olson says, "just enforcement of Montana law."

That law, known as "constructive possession," means that if underagers are at a party and have access to alcohol, they're breaking the law even if they aren't drinking.

"It wasn't a new law," said Robin Morris, executive director of the HELP Committee. "People were simply ignorant of the laws that were on the books for many, many years."

The message hasn't been lost on young people.

"In this town, if you want to drink, you have to risk the cops," said Montana State University-Northern student Spring Hagen, 19. "There's no leniency at all. If they come to a party, you are busted."

But why, if local police are so tough on underage drinking, is there so much of it in Hill County?

Some students and parents say the constructive possession law merely forces underagers to drink under more hazardous conditions.

"What it's doing is making it more dangerous for kids to drink," said Randy McPherson, who has two daughters, Jayla and Jeanna, attending Havre High School. "The whole idea is to save lives."

Some in the juvenile justice system say the parents seemed more agitated with law enforcement than they are concerned that their children are drinking.

Finger-pointing at law enforcement is the most common reaction about 80 percent of the time, said Bob Peake, chief probation officer in the Hill County Juvenile Court.

"The majority of parents are making excuses about why something happened, enabling the kids," said Angi DiSalvo, who supervises underagers in the Hill County Juvenile Court's community service program.

A tighter grip

Hill County law enforcement tightened its grip on illegal drinking in 1990, three years after Montana changed its drinking age from 19 to 21.

Young adults who had turned 19 before April 1, 1987 the first day of the new drinking age were allowed to continue drinking legally.

But for Hill County teens who missed that date, the number of underage drinking parties spiraled out of control, said Mike Shortell, Havre police chief from 1987 to 2000.

Since 1987, there have been 50 fatal car crashes in Hill County; 31 of them were alcohol-related, the Montana Highway Patrol said. How many involved underaged drinkers is not known because the Montana Highway Patrol doesn't keep track of them by age.

Havre police and the Hill County Sheriff's Office responded by adhering more closely to state laws. Instead of pouring out beer or confiscating kegs at parties and letting underagers off with a warning, they started writing more tickets for minor in possession of alcohol even to those who claimed they weren't drinking.

The Montana Highway Patrol and Hill County Sheriff's Office increased patrols in Beaver Creek Park, the site of most of the alcohol-related accidents involving underagers.

Some area residents criticize officers for issuing MIP citations to designated drivers. They note that some counties, like nearby Liberty County, don't enforce the constructive possession law.

Law enforcement officers counter that since it is illegal for underagers to drink, designated drivers are helping their friends commit a crime.

Last year, the state Legislature increased the fines for underagers convicted of MIPs. For children under 18, the fine for first-time MIP offenders was raised from $100 to $150. For those 18 and older, the fine for a first offense went from $50 to $150. For those 18 and older, penalties for second and third offense MIPs also increased $100, to $200 and $300, respectively.

Also in 2000, the Legislature decided that MIPs should not be considered driving offenses because an underager does not have to be in a vehicle to get one. Only 350 of the 6,748 MIP convictions in Montana in 2000 involved a vehicle.

A law adopted in 1995 made it possible to charge underagers with DUI even with a small amount of alcohol in their system. While of-age drivers must have at least a 0.10 blood alcohol content to be charged with DUI, an underager only needs a 0.02 to get a "baby DUI."

Counties in Montana were given the choice in 1981 to prosecute their MIPs in juvenile court or Justice and City Court. For at least 15 years, Hill County has chosen to send MIPs through the adult system. Carol Chagnon, who retired in early May after spending 16 years as the Hill County justice of the peace, said it was a poor decision.

"They're scattered all over everywhere," she said. "Why are they not in youth court where they belong? ... We're not trained youth counselors."

Peake, the chief probation officer in Juvenile Court, said his court prefers not to fine juveniles a common punishment for MIPs because parents often pay their children's fines.

The City Court and Justice Court are better equipped to manage the flow of tickets, said Peake.

"It's basically a collaboration of effort between those courts and the youth court, because we run the community service program, which takes a lot more effort than that first appearance," he added.

Before she retired, Chagnon and City Judge Joyce Perszyk were not on the same page a fact known to many underagers.

Perszyk, who has held her seat since 1997, has cultivated a reputation as the more heavy-handed judge.

"If you got caught out of town and you had to go see Judge Chagnon, you knew that if you cried, she would be nice to you," said 24-year-old Havre resident Julie Toldness, who had eight MIPs in high school.

Perszyk is ready to hand out stiff punishments. "I am probably not the favorite judge for kids to see, because I expect compliance," she said.

Last May, Chagnon and Perszyk met with representatives from the sheriff's office, police department and county commissioners to discuss sending all first-time MIP offenders to Insight, a four-week alcohol information program. Since then, Perszyk has included the course for most of her first-time offenders, but Chagnon never used it.

"I think we need some more consistency in how we handle our MIP cases, where the same behavior is going to warrant the same fine," said Robin Morris, executive director of the HELP Committee.

Perszyk occasionally bypasses the Insight program, and sends underagers directly to Assessment Course and Treatment or ACT, a six-week program for more serious alcohol offenders. She did so when a 14-year-old girl recently told Perszyk that she drank alcohol four times a month and occasionally blacked out.

"That's not normal," the judge said. "That's a pretty serious situation."

Though Perszyk sometimes uses probation as a sentencing tactic for first-time offenders, she takes advantage of the increased fines for MIPs for repeat offenders. Yet she also said, "I don't think higher fines are going to make them drink less."

Chagnon preferred community service to setting fines.

"Is that the name of the game, to see how much money we can collect?" Chagnon asked.

Community service

Angi DiSalvo normally supervises between 15 and 20 underagers in the Hill County Juvenile Court's community service program. After large party busts, that number can swell.

She arranges for the juveniles to serve community service hours at local nonprofit and community service organizations, like the Salvation Army, senior center and soup kitchen.

Children make bag lunches for inmates at the Hill County Detention Center, file paperwork at the courthouse or do landscaping work at the fairgrounds.

Children doing work for drinking-related offenses usually serve between 20 and 30 hours of community service. Part of DiSalvo's job is to separate the ones who are acquainted with one another.

"We use community service as a means of punishment," Peake said. "It isn't supposed to be fun."

If a juvenile has a job or plays a sport, the youth court makes necessary adjustments.

"We make every effort to work around their schedules if they are working or involved in extracurricular activities, because those are positive things in the kid's life and we don't want to jeopardize them," Peake said.

Once a month, DiSalvo teaches a three-hour class called the Diversion Program. It focuses on decision-making and life skills, and on children "taking responsibility for their actions," DiSalvo said.

In the same vein, one of DiSalvo's largest frustrations is parents who do not make their children follow through on court-ordered punishments like community service.

"It's the parents' responsibility to raise the kids not the courts," Chagnon said. "It's what you've instilled in them at home that's going to make a difference."

The challenge of child-rearing increases when there's only one parent at home. According to the 2000 census, 994 of the 4,255 families in Hill County were single-parent homes a rate of 23 percent.

Regardless of their situation, Havre High student Levi Briese said, "Parents need to step up to the plate."

Chris Brown, a 1997 Havre High graduate and former binge drinker, said he doesn't think parents should shoulder all the responsibility.

"Everybody tries to blame parents," he said. "My parents are the best. It wasn't their fault. I put them through hell. And they couldn't do nothing to stop me."

Editor's note: This is the second installment of a two-part series. Part one may be found in the news archives for the date 08/08/02. Also see related stories under local headlines.

 

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