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Jeff Ward: I Want to Encourage Underage Thinking!

Not all citizen activism is a good thing.

At the risk of making some readers’ heads explode, I’m gonna say it again. Not all citizen activism is a good thing.

But what those all-caps responders fail to understand is, that doesn’t mean I’m discouraging anyone from getting involved. As long as your methodology is reasonable, and you’re not too attached to the outcome, by all means, give it your best shot.

You see, when you have the wisdom to put the process above your ego, the process tends to take care of itself.

It is with that self-correcting mechanism in mind that we’ll take a look at 21-year-old Geneva resident Zachary Ploppert’s recent that, in light of another parent-sanctioned , we should increase that fine from $100 to $250 and throw in some community service for good measure.

I apologize to my smarter readers for having to issue this caveat—not that it ever stops the knee jerks anyway—but here it is: I’m not advocating unbridled underage drinking. What I am advocating is that civic-minded folks, especially those with an should more-carefully consider their position before going public.

To wit, Ploppert’s proposition was flawed from the start. He essentially opened his letter to the editor with, “ … the number of tickets issued has declined in recent years, and overall, the amount of underage drinking tickets issued is relatively low.”

And that’s exactly where he should have stopped. But instead, like so many folks who remain undaunted in the face of contrary facts, Ploppert simply created his own.

Rather than accept that his original statement was correct, he unilaterally decided the crime wasn’t in decline, it was that Geneva teens were becoming more adept at avoiding detection. Thus, he called for the increased fine that "sends the message that underage drinking will not be tolerated in Geneva.”

But Zac? Isn’t that like Metra instituting a fare hike when they’re not collecting them to begin with? What’s the point of a $250 fine if they’re not going to get caught? The only message that sends is the Geneva City Council is willing to waste our time on ineffective feel-good legislation that only makes it appear as if they’re actually doing something.

Sure enough, when Ploppert appeared before that body, Sam Hill hopped right on the bandwagon. Dean Kilburg, the alderman for whom I’ve harbored such high hopes, actually said the fact the fine has been the same for 42 years was “ridiculous.”

Ah, yes! Another example of the municipal mindset at work. Fines should always go up over time if for no other reason than they should always go up over time.

My advice to the City Council would be to stop considering sandwich boards and underage drinking and prepare yourselves for the disruptive budgetary effects of distressed properties counting toward property-tax assessments for the first time in 2012.

Inexplicably, after ignoring his original analysis, Ploppert stopped the investigation altogether. I agree that community service is a better alternative than a fine, but small municipalities like Geneva don’t have the infrastructure to run a community-service program. That’s something typically left to the county.

And speaking of the county, the GPD already has the discretion to send underage drinking cases to the . Once it’s in their capable hands, they can hit the offender with community service as well as a $2,500 fine.

In fact, it’s been the GPD’s policy to issue a $100 ticket for the first offense and kick it up to the county for the second. That seems perfectly reasonable to me. If there’s one police force on the planet I trust to appropriately use discretion, it’s ours. Why mess with success?

Chief Steve Mexin told me, “I’m not necessarily opposed to a fine increase, but the fact is, I don’t see any identifiable reason that would indicate an increase is necessary.” Hallelujah! I love a law enforcement leader who refuses to pander.

Take note, aldermen! There’s no need to consider this any further.

I would also encourage Mr. Ploppert to re-read his high school history books. Prohibition never works! When every third TV commercial portrays a crowd that can’t crack a smile without a beer buzz, how are we gonna keep ‘em down on the farm?

You want the real answer? In Europe, teenagers can have a glass of wine with their parents in any restaurant without repercussion. Even children can partake. And because it isn’t forbidden fruit, those countries don’t have an underage-drinking problem.

Mr. Ploppert! When you noted that underage drinking citations were in decline, instead of assuming facts that weren’t in evidence, perhaps you should’ve pulled the plug right there. Not only did you compound your error, you wasted the City Council’s time by offering a solution that already exists and one that doesn’t address the root problem.

That said, your willingness to put yourself on the line in the battle against underage drinking is to be lauded and, armed with a better plan, I heartily encourage you to continue your efforts.

Colin C. November 09, 2011 at 02:09 PM
Death rates per 100,000 in this country go way up for people between 15 and 25, then drop way down till about age 65, when they begin to rise again. The three leading causes of death for teens are: accidents (of all kinds), homicide, and suicide. More than half of all fatal accidents for teens are alcohol related. A significant number of homicides and suicides are also alcohol related. The human brain does not fully develop until about age 25. The last areas to mature are those involved with judgement, foresight, compassion; the highest of human functions. These areas are the first to be effected by the mind altering drug alcohol. An 18 year old is more effected by 3 beers than a 28 year old. When the drinking age was lowered to 18 the death rate for 15-20 year olds increased dramatically. It came down when the legal age returned to 21. The underlying question is simply “how can we reduce this risk for our kids?” Our culture is inundated with “positive drinking” messages. Alcohol is easily available. Too many adults “wink” at the law and thereby encourage our kids to drink and put themselves and others at risk. In Europe attitudes and the drinking culture are very different. Still, they are having serious problems of their own with this issue. The idea of punishment for violating the law concerning legal drinking age is an attempt to save lives. Raising the fine might get parents attention more effectively. Anybody got a better idea? Let’s hear it.
Jeff Ward November 09, 2011 at 02:35 PM
Colin, The option to bring the fine hammer down already exists. All the GPD has to do is send the case to the county and they can hit parents with 10 times what Geneva is proposing. Given my vast amount of research on this topic, European countries don't have nearly the underage drinking issues and, because of their tough DUI laws, incidences of drunk driving pale in comparison to ours. Do they have drunks in the parks in Stockholm, sure, but alcoholism exists everywhere. I have to go with Chief Mexin on this one. Jeff
Bob McQuillan November 09, 2011 at 03:20 PM
Jeff Your opinion might change when your now middle school-er reaches high school and is invited to a co-ed sleep over where the hosting "parents" allow the party goers drink. Your child might forget to tell you about the co-ed and drinking part of the party. And when and if the GPD knocks on the door, the host doesn't allow them in. NO parent has the right to decide what is right for another parent's child. If you don't think this happens in Geneva think again. Remember history repeats itself. If officials don't think teenage drinking is a problem, they have their head in the sand. Wonder how many second offenders are actually kicked up to the county and what their actual fines are. Has a $2,500 fine ever been imposed? I am sure many lawyers have made a small fortune from parents by representing their teenagers.
Jeff Ward November 09, 2011 at 03:25 PM
Bob, I doubt it will change because no fine is going to stop a parent who would allow someone else's child to drink under their roof. Now we're talking civil lawsuit which is a far worse fate than a fine. And Bob, you answered your own question. I'm guessing that "small fortune" these enabling parents have to pay their attorney is going to be far steeper than even the original $2,500 fine. You can't legislate against stupidity. Jeff
Colin C. November 09, 2011 at 03:38 PM
Jeff, I don't necessarily disagree that raising the fine in Geneva is not the best way to approach this problem, what i am saying, (and Bob has stated it better than I), is that drinking alcohol poses a disproportionate danger to teens and we need to find a better way to help reduce their risk. There is nothing new about this. In my 32 years working in the field of ATOD prevention/education/treatment, mostly in community programs with parents and kids, I have seen very little overall progress, if any at all. I've been deeply involved with SADD, MADD, Safe Homes, Talking With Your Kids About Alcohol, Teen Institutes, free rides programs, after prom parties, and a host of classroom prevention courses, as well as direct intervention and treatment. I'm an expert---in failure. There are still far too many kids screwing up or losing their own lives and taking destroying other's lives because of drinking. So, I am asking you and your readers to suggest ideas, any ideas that might help lower the toll. Just maybe someone has an idea that might really save some lives.
Bob McQuillan November 09, 2011 at 03:40 PM
Jeff You didn't answer my question, how many cases from GPD were kicked up to the county and what was the result. Creating laws that aren't enforced could be considered stupid. Based on your vast amount of research on this topic, I'm sure you checked with the county on conviction rates.
Jeff Ward November 09, 2011 at 03:57 PM
Colin, Phew! I'm glad you brought up your vast substance abuse credentials. Though I would certainly consider you an expert in the field, I didn't want to share that kind of information without your express consent. Jeff
Colin C. November 09, 2011 at 04:57 PM
Jeff, I'm not sure what you mean by that. I did not bring up my experience in order to claim that I know more than others but rather to say that I have been involved with a number of popular programs that, in my view, made little overall difference, or, at best, were effective for young people who were already pretty responsible. What I am asking is for ideas to reduce the risks that our young people face that are not simply repetitions of programs that have failed, in the long run, to achieve as much as we would like. I think that parents are the key and that parents who allow drinking parties for teens in their homes, through negligence or on purpose, pose the greatest danger. Not just in the instance of a specific party but in the message that they convey: the law is wrong, does not apply to us, and it is OK to break it. Even kids who did not attend the party know all about it by noon of the next day in school and get that message loud and clear. That message carries over long past and far beyond the party and gives kids an excuse that they can use anytime, anywhere. An absolutely firm, consistant message: the law has a good purpose and must be obeyed, from all segments of society; home, church, school, merchants, police, media, everyone, might be some help. We all need to agree on and convey a clear, firm, consistant expectation to our kids. That, in itself, won't solve the problem but I think that it will help. Is there a way to get to that?
Jeff Ward November 09, 2011 at 05:07 PM
Colin, Yikes! What I was and am saying is you DO know more than me. And I wanted to make that clear in my original response, but I didn't want to offer information about your background that you might not have been willing to share. Thus, when you provided that information yourself, I was relieved that I could then refer to it without repercussion. Though I still don't believe any fine will make a difference, and I was more concerned with a thought process than any outcome, I think it's important that folks here understand you really do know what you're talking about. Jeff
Colin C. November 09, 2011 at 05:48 PM
Jeff, understood. Thank you, but I have fewer secrets than most people running for president. You brought up civil suit against parents who allow teen drinking. I don't know about Illinois, but in New York, where I worked, it was legally possible for the "injured party" to bring a civil suit against parents who allowed underaged drinking that resulted in the injury. If they won a judgement the defendants (offending parents) could not dodge it by claiming bankruptcy. There goes the house, the cars, the life savings, and the wages are garnished for the rest of their lives. Now that's a deterrent!! Or should be. I can't remember a single case being brought and I don't understand why. If people are suing for spilling coffee in their own laps and discovering that it is hot why in the world don't they sue for the death of a child?? Anybody know?
ken loebel November 10, 2011 at 03:23 AM
Seems to me, in a democracy, if someone wants to bring an issue up, they are entitled to it... and if they are condemned for it... then in the bigger picture, the ones condemning the debate/discussion are really condemning democracy and the right for everyone to express their opinion freely, whether you personally agree with it or not. Therefore, debate, discuss, and see where it goes. It's better than China's approach,and sure beats a sharp stick and a poke in the eye.
Jeff Ward November 10, 2011 at 04:06 AM
Elizabeth, Fines should go up if it serves a purpose not because of inflation. And I want Mr. Kilburg to explain that purpose, not just to increase a fine because that's the way things are. If the police chief doesn't see a need to increase the fine, then neither do I. Jeff

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