STATE COLLEGE — Borough, county and student officials Wednesday testified before state legislators that they support proposed fine and fee increases for those guilty of public drunkenness and underage drinking.
Borough Manager Tom Fountaine, Police Chief Tom King, District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller and University Park Undergraduate Association assembly Chairman Spencer Malloy spoke at a state House Judiciary Committee hearing held in State College. The hearing involved discussion on two pieces of legislation introduced by Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township. The full Senate has passed the bills, and the House will consider them Sept. 25.
The first measure increases the maximum fine to $1,000 for someone convicted of public drunkenness or underage drinking. The current maximum is $300, which hasn’t changed since the early 1970s.
“As a politician, raising fees isn’t anything I want to do by any stretch of the imagination,” Corman said. “The reason we felt compelled to raise this is because fines haven’t been changed since 1973.”
He noted the fine is a maximum, and district judges still will have the final say in each case.
The second bill creates a $100 fee imposed on those convicted of various alcoholrelated crimes — including public drunkenness and underage drinking — with the fee going to the municipality where the offense occurred, to fund its alcohol offense prevention unit.
Officials, including two from other counties where colleges operate, shared statistics as evidence that the drinking offenses in question strain local resources, and that the fees would help address prevention programs.
In State College, more than two-thirds of the 6,500 crimes to which police respond involve alcohol, King said. He emphasized data showing that, last year, 657 Penn State students were taken to the hospital for alcohol overdoses and that the average blood-alcohol content for those treated students was an all-time high of .287. The 2010 average was .255. The legal limit to drive is .08.
“It is very costly to provide the level of police services needed to respond each year to the thousands of alcohol-related crimes and to keep State College safe,” King said, noting that his department’s $9 million budget in 2012 represents almost half of the borough’s overall general fund budget.
To show the impact of underage and excessive drinking, King offered a few examples of incidents police have responded to in the past 10 days, including a 21- year-old drunk man trying to open an unmarked police car door, believing it was his own vehicle.
King outlined programs the borough has engaged in with Penn State to address alcohol offenses and said the $100 fee would help continue and expand those, while the increased fines would serve as a deterrent. He said officials have seen the latter in other university towns and noted the fines and fees would be assessed to the violators instead of taxpayers, who fund the police department.
“In order to be a deterrent, the fine must be high enough to dissuade persons from committing the crime,” he said. “If the penalty is significant enough, persons will think twice before engaging in criminal activity.”
Parks Miller testified that out of 3,000 cases her office prosecutes a year, 980 were for driving under the influence in 2010, a figure she called “astonishing.” She said alcoholrelated crimes increase and decrease in rhythm with the academic year.
“If someone should pay, why not the offenders?” she said, agreeing with King. “It’s really a no-brainer.”
Malloy pointed to the undergraduate association’s efforts and those of other campus organizations to work with the borough and to address excessive drinking, and said the legislation seems to be a step in the right direction.
Malloy said he “cautiously” supports the bills. He said the bill creating the $100 fee initially seemed to unfairly target university communities.
“However, the requirements that funding from these fines be put directly back into the eligible municipality’s alcohol offense prevention unit and, thus, essentially be recycled to reduce the effect and number of such crimes directly in our community is something to be noted,” he said. “It is because of this provision, which will hopefully mean that all moneys collected be utilized in a direct manner with a focus on prevention rather than retribution, that I think many students will understand the justification for the legislation.”
Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter