Conn. state legislators target underage drinking

If a proposed bill is signed into effect by the Connecticut General Assembly, adults convicted of procuring alcohol for minors could have their drivers’ licenses suspended for six months the first time they are caught and over a year for multiple offences.

Prominent legislators and coalition members of Partners for Zero Tolerance for Underage Access held a press conference in Hartford Monday morning to announce the proposal, which is designed to reduce underage drinking by imposing severe penalties, harsher than the existing fine, on adults providing minors with alcohol.

State Rep. Larry Cafero proposed the bill and several legislators, including state Sen. Jonathan Harris, spoke in favor of it.

“By threatening drivers’ licenses, this hits where it hurts,” Harris said after the press conference. “It’s not that we’ll pass this bill and the problem will be solved, but there is a gaping hole in the law that needs plugging.”

Members of the Zero Tolerance coalition said legislators surpassed their expectations in demonstrating bipartisan and enthusiastic support for the bill.

“I was quite surprised to see a number of legislators showing support for the bill,” John Lemega, chairman of the West Hartford Substance Abuse Prevention Commission and a speaker at the press conference, said after the event. “This problem is very difficult to resolve, but if we start with a premise of zero tolerance, this bill is very consistent.”

Legislators said the existing double-digit fine inflicted on adults purchasing liquor for minors has failed to hinder underage drinking. Stressing the significance of the problem, West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci said the proposed punishment, though severe, fits the crime.

“It is not as harsh as imprisonment, but the punishment will probably hit home with people at the age in question,” Strillacci said. “It will probably make people think twice about engaging in illegal activity.”

Lemega agreed with Strillacci on the need for severity. In a state where most residents rely on driving for their transportation, losing a license can be catastrophic.

“The idea is to make the punishment as painful as possible,” Lemega said. “Underage drinking is an intractable problem and intractable problems call for harsh solutions. I suspect by the time the second adult loses their license, there will be a real change of policy in adults giving alcohol to kids.”

But West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka said the bill might well be applied only in certain cases, with convictions and penalties only following serious problems.

“If there are two cases and in the former an adult gives a kid a beer and nothing happens and in the latter the kid crashes a car, you would say the punishment does not fit the crime in the former case but it certainly does in the latter,” Slifka said.

Slifka also cautioned against thinking of the bill as a final product, noting that details could well change during the legislative process.

In fact, the bill might not survive the legislative process at all. Harris said the bill will have to pass through the Transportation Committee and possibly the Judiciary Committee before appearing on the house calendar sometime in April. The details may be different by then, especially if lawmakers attempt to tackle broader issues relating to underage drinking in the intervening period.

Harris said the bill might only be the start to further work in limiting minors’ access to alcohol.

“This bill is not going to save the world, but it provides an important deterrent,” Harris said. “The fact that there are different issues just shows that there a lot of different ways to attack the problem and we’re going to try them all.”

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