Call it a reality check for underage drinkers. Punishment that fits the crime. Or, as New Hanover-Pender County District Attorney Ben David calls it, a teachable moment. Whatever the term, David and several fellow district attorneys are launching an experiment that could be much more effective than having teens pick up trash on the side of the road.
Young people lack the maturity to see beyond the next adventure. As they celebrate their budding independence, they might take foolish risks without bothering to consider the consequences. To them, death is far off, and some might not yet have had to face responsibility for their own actions.
This program aims to change that by using punishment as education.
Armed with a one-year grant from the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, David plans to use community service hours to show young people convicted on alcohol-related charges just how much damage they could do to themselves and to others.
Perhaps the biggest eye-opener will be a requirement to spend at least two hours in the emergency room at New Hanover Regional Medical Center on a busy Friday night, where the results of drinking to intoxication are apparent as victims of drunken brawls, binge drinking or driving while impaired arrive for treatment.
But the heart of the program is in David’s plan to use punishment as an opportunity to help the young offender understand that there are severe consequences not only from breaking the drinking-age law but from consuming alcohol recklessly. He will enlist help from District Court Judge James Faison, who oversees DWI treatment court, and students will have to attend classes on the health consequences of alcohol.
Underage drinkers will be answerable to the court for a year instead of just a couple of months, a consequence that also could deter others from making the same mistake. That is in addition, of course, to hefty fines and court costs, along with any other punishment administered. Minors who are caught driving with any amount of alcohol in their systems and those who try to buy alcohol also can lose their driver’s license for a year.
The problem of underage drinking is finally getting some serious attention. In May, Gov. Pat McCrory signed an executive order that will see several University of North Carolina campuses, including UNCW, participating in a pilot program to reduce drug and alcohol abuse. And Jim Gardner, chairman of the state ABC Commission, has made preventing underage drinking a priority for that body.
David and other district attorneys are trying to address the problem by making the punishment more closely fit the crime. Their way deserves a chance to prove itself.