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Stopping the revolving door by addressing underage drinking

Over the weekend, Rand Paul’s 22-year old son was charged with driving under the influence (DUI). This marks the third alcohol-related offense that has brought Paul into contact with the criminal justice system. has been working with judges, prosecutors, law enforcement and probation/parole since 2003 to improve DUI adjudication and highlight the challenges the courts face in dealing with youthful offenders.

Too often, underage drinking offenses are written off as a rite of passage and are not viewed as a serious infraction when in reality, they could be a red flag. The quick justice approach to processing and adjudicating these cases (typically in the form of fines and community service in exchange for dismissal), misses a valuable opportunity to identify youth who may be struggling. While not every teenager who consumes alcohol has a drinking problem, every citation, detention, and arrest for underage drinking should trigger the process of screening and assessment.

A young person who is drinking can be on several different paths; by conducting an assessment, practitioners are able to determine where the youth currently is with respect to their drinking, and what trajectory they are on based on individual risk factors. The information garnered from the assessment can then be used to develop a disposition, case management plan, and treatment referrals that are tailored to a youth’s individual risks and needs.

Failure to identify alcohol dependency or other problems in a young person’s life can lead to future alcohol-related offenses and further contact with the criminal justice system. The only way to address the escalation in criminal behavior is intervention at the earliest stages (i.e., their first offense).

Research has shown that risk factors for impaired driving and alcohol-related crash involvement include early onset drinking and a history of prior alcohol-related offenses (Dugosh et al., 2013; Syracle and White, 2006). Perhaps if Paul’s prior offenses had resulted in assessment he would have been referred to treatment interventions as opposed to merely alcohol education and community service.

This year released its newest online resource for judges in partnership with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) entitled “Effective Judicial Interventions for Underage Drinking Offenders.” This free, interactive course is designed to increase the understanding of the importance of assessment and treatment of juvenile offenders and provide the building blocks and guidance judges can utilize, together with other criminal justice stakeholders, to build an effective systems approach to address underage drinking.

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