Legislators look to lessen legal consequences of underage drinking


North Dakota’s current underage drinking law carries penalties up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine. A bipartisan bill would change that.

“This bill actually came at the suggestion of district court judges up in Grand Forks county,” Grand Forks Democratic Representative Zac Ista said.

Ista is sponsoring a bill that would change underage drinking from a class B misdemeanor to an infraction, which doesn’t come with a risk of jail time. He says the current consequence for having a small amount of marijuana is less severe than for drinking alcohol underage — thus encouraging marijuana use.

“If we are punishing marijuana at the infraction level, which has a maximum thousand dollar fine, it’s still a criminal offense. Let’s look at doing the same with to alcohol, which is currently a class B misdemeanor that could subject a minor to jail time in extreme circumstances,” Ista said.

Ista says the bill would make the justice system fairer by putting both substances on the same playing field, and giving judges more time to focus on more serious crimes.

One of the tools for judges to address underage drinking is through “mandatory alcohol education” — which would no longer be mandatory under a bill proposed by Fargo Republican Representative Shannon Roers Jones.

“In this bill, we’re simply changing the word ‘shall’ to ‘may’ to give judges the discretion to determine whether these classes are a benefit to every person who is charged with an alcohol violation,” Roers Jones said.

She also says that the recent closing of Lutheran Social Services would make continuing the mandatory education component a challenge since the nonprofit helped provide that programming, however, according to the state’s Human Services Department’s Behavioral Health Division, none of the 37 Minor in Possession instructors work for Lutheran Social Services.

The Human Services Department emphasizes that there is no shortage of certified instructors in the state, and therefore no impact on individuals accessing the educational class.

James Knopik of the Human Services Department opposed the proposal, saying the classes are effective, and shouldn’t be optional.

“We have seen nationwide data that shows these evidence-based prevention programs can reduce binge drinking in youth as well as decrease the recidivism related offenses,” Knopik said.

According to the state’s most recent Youth Risk Behavioral Survey in 2019, 13 percent of high school students reported their first drink before age 13. Neither bill has been voted on yet, and both are still in committee.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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