Friday, January 4, 2008

D.A. Gets Tough on Drunkenness

The Santa Barbara News Press just picked up the story. The District Attorney's Office has toughened its stand against those under 21 who are arrested for public intoxication by alcohol. For many years the Office offered these same individuals (upon a first offense) the option of taking an alcohol awareness class in order to avoid the criminal conviction and the year-long license suspension. This jibed just fine with state policy given the fact that the state calls for municipalities to install a sobering center whereby such individuals can escape criminal prosecution. See Penal Code section 647(g). Since Isla Vista, the number one most popular spot to get drunk in the County (if not the state), doesn't have a sobering center, the District Attorney's treatment of these cases, non-criminally, seemed an intelligent way to stem the otherwise huge numbers of criminal convictions that would necessarily flow out of Isla Vista. Nevertheless, the District Attorney's Office has chosen to throw out this solution in favor of "getting tough"; hoping to bring about a change in behavior among the larger student population.

Even if the D.A.'s Office is correct that toughening their stand is going to reduce the numbers of minors getting drunk in Isla Vista, I strongly disagree that this is good policy. One reason is that it creates a very troubling contrast of outcomes depending on what substance a minor decides to experiment with. If we consider that there is a one free bite at the apple in terms of use and possession of hard drugs, (such as methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, etc.), as afforded by Penal Code section 1000, then how is that a single instance use of alcohol should produce a criminal conviction? The unfortunate message to the Isla Vista population, therein, is that you are better off experimenting with hard drugs than alcohol. For alcohol intoxication you will suffer a criminal conviction, for intoxication by anything else, you won't. We can, of course, debate whether alcohol is any better than the other drugs. However, what can't be debated is that, within a few years, the individual will be able to legally drink alcohol; and not so with the hard drugs. So, how can the government logically take the position that alcohol is worse than hard drugs when alcohol is legal for those 21 and over, and hard drugs are not? Also, I would strongly disagree that alcohol, in general, is anywhere near as damaging to the human body and brain as methamphetamine, nor is it anywhere near as addictive as heroin. It strikes me that the District Attorney's Office did not think this through.

The over-arching truth is that most people in this not-so-dry county are not really excited about sitting in judgment of a college-aged kid who got caught drinking. Consequently, even a few "dead-to-rights" guilty minors are going to get acquitted of the offenses at jury trial; not to mention the closer cases. So, more of these cases are being, and will be, tried as the result. This is and will continue to tie up days upon days of court time. And to what productive end?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You make an excellent point, and it's one that wasn't apparent to me before -- about the disparity we have in Santa Barbara now. There's a "second chance" for users of hard drugs to avoid a criminal record, but no such second chance for those who choose to drink alcohol.

You must be right. The DA's office can't have thought this through.