BISMARCK — Two proposals before the North Dakota Legislature would soften penalties against those caught drinking alcohol before their 21st birthday.
North Dakota has the second highest rate of underage drinking in the nation, according to a 2019 study, but proponents of weakening the punishments argue it would give judges more discretion and align booze and pot laws.
Under the current law, residents between 18 and 21 found to have drunk, possessed or bought alcohol could face a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. House Bill 1223 would change the maximum punishment to an infraction, which comes with a possible $1,000 fine but no jail time.
Democratic Rep. Zachary Ista, the bipartisan bill's prime sponsor, said his proposal comes at the request of Grand Forks judges who believe there's "a misalignment in the law" regarding penalties for underage drinking and marijuana possession. Lawmakers passed legislation in 2019 that knocked down the maximum penalty for possessing up to a half ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction.
Ista, a prosecutor by trade, said the potential of jail time for a young North Dakotan caught drinking is excessively harsh, though he noted that judges rarely throw the book at such defendants.
"In North Dakota, we should take seriously binge drinking and underage drinking and substance abuse, but the way to do that is through parents, educators and substance abuse counselors when necessary," Ista said. "We don't need heavy-handed threats of incarceration to do that."
Ista adds that the bill would not change DUI laws, which he said should remain tough on offenders. He also pointed out that the proposal would not affect those under 18 who would have their cases adjudicated in juvenile court and wouldn't face misdemeanor charges anyway.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said he hasn't read Ista's bill, but he isn't sure he'd be in favor of lessening the penalties for underage drinking, noting that it's a serious issue in the state. However, several other GOP lawmakers have joined Ista's bill as co-sponsors, including Rep. Shannon Roers Jones and four Grand Forks Republicans.
Roers Jones has brought forth a separate proposal, House Bill 1124, that would give judges a choice in ordering alcohol education classes for those caught drinking underage. As the law is written now, judges have no option but to require the program.
She said there are certain circumstances under which someone may be charged with a minor in possession of alcohol but never actually drank booze. Other times, a judge may want to order something more severe than education, like full-on substance abuse treatment. Either way, Roers Jones said judges should have more flexibility over the matter.
"I don't expect that the use of these alcohol education classes is going to go down significantly — it just gives judges discretion in those rare cases where there may be a more appropriate alternative," Roers Jones said.
James Knopik, a behavioral health administrator with the state Department of Human Services, spoke against Roers Jones' proposal at a hearing on the bill earlier this week. He said there's evidence that education efforts decrease binge drinking, and the problematic activity has recently declined in North Dakota under the current law. Knopik added that alcohol is still the primary substance abused by North Dakota youth, and taking away the education requirement could compromise the state's progress.
Pollert declined to comment on Roers Jones' proposal, saying he hadn't yet read the bill.
Neither bill has been voted on by the House of Representatives. A hearing on Ista's bill is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 25.