After nearly a year of experimenting with a harsher policy for underage public intoxication violators, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office is taking a step back and easing up on the county’s younger drinkers.
Prior to June of last year, the district attorney’s office allowed underage individuals arrested for drunk in public offenses to plead guilty to an infraction and take a county or university sponsored Youthful Offender Program. The program required that offenders attend alcohol awareness courses and pay a roughly $400 fine – but the underage drinkers would have public intoxication charges wiped from their record, and at the end of the program, they would walk out the door with their driver licenses still in hand.
However, according to Chief Assistant District Attorney Patrick McKinley, the program had no effect on the high number of violators. Last year, 1,600 individuals were arrested for public intoxication in southern Santa Barbara County alone, he said. Isla Vista, McKinley said, contributes a fair share to that statistic.
“The overwhelming majority of those [arrests] are from the State Street quarter and Isla Vista,” McKinley said. “Not everyone is under 21, but a huge number are.”
With these underage violators in mind, the district attorney’s office turned to deterrence. It has not allowed violators to take the YOP classes since September and has given defendants two simple options: Plead guilty to public intoxication charges and accept a yearlong driver license suspension or fight in court. The results have not been promising.
“The cases we tried – I think there were six of them – two results have been guilty, and the rest were either not guilty or hung juries,” McKinley said.
Furthermore, McKinley said jurors expressed skepticism and told attorneys they believed the matter was too minor to “bring in a bunch of people” to decide.
Attorney William C. Makler, who said he represented an underage woman in one of the six trials, said the extended process of holding a trial for such a minor offense actually affected the outcome and saved his client – who had reportedly vomited on herself and was drinking heavily before her arrest – from harsher sentencing.
“Very shortly into the prosecution’s case, the prosecutor just folded and said ‘you know, I’m not gonna continue to just fight this,'” McKinley said. “My client pleaded to an infraction for disturbing the peace and got 10 hours of community service.”
Six months later, the district attorney’s office has changed its course. McKinley told the Daily Nexus yesterday that the office is reverting back to a slightly modified pre-2007 policy.
“I think the shortest explanation is that the policy change hasn’t worked,” McKinley said. “Why persist in a policy that’s causing us to lose trials and inconvenience jurors?”
McKinley said the modified policy is not yet finalized but was already disseminated down to prosecutors and will still allow first-time underage offenders to plead guilty to an infraction and enroll in alcohol courses. However, prosecutors will fight to get driver licenses suspended if the offenders’ alcohol charges were in connection to other charges, such as battery, resisting arrest or destruction of property.
“The new policy is going to be very close to what we were doing but with one little change and that is: In very aggravated cases, we will stick with attempting to get the license suspended,” McKinley said.
Jackie Kurta, Clinical Manager for UCSB’s Alcohol and Drug Program, said that while she believed UCSB’s alcohol program may have lost the opportunity to contact students in need of help because of the temporary policy change, she appreciated the district attorney’s office’s efforts.
“In what ever way the law enforcement can encourage people to get educated and to get information as to how they can be more responsible and safe – whatever incentive they offer, we appreciate,” Kurta said.
Makler, who advertises himself as the “I.V. Lawyer,” welcomed the change. He thought the old district attorney policy not only wasted resources, but hurt students by slapping them with criminal records.
“People with no criminal history, strong, law abiding members of the community who are going to do amazing things with their lives and careers, are being prosecuted for crimes for nothing other than the fact that they are getting drunk in college,” Makler said.
Liz Buda, Associated Students off-campus representative and I.V. Community Programs coordinator, said that neither of the district attorney’s punishments accurately fits the simple crime of drinking alcohol underage.
“The punishment does not reflect the crime,” Buda said. “Its just a way to criminalized students and change what the county views as the negative aspects of I.V.”
Although he noted that a few of his clients with trials set for later this month were thrilled with this recent development, Makler said that “tinkering with plea bargain tactics” will not solve the large number of violations coming from I.V.
McKinley said the district attorney’s office had crafted the policy change as a deterrent – much like it did when it hiked up the fines and punishments for couch burning in I.V. – but that it is still an overarching problem that needs to be addressed.
“You can talk about the policy all day long,” McKinley said. “The end result is it’s neither here nor there to people if they’re dead or hurt or facing serious charges [as a result of heavy drinking]. That’s the bigger problem.”