Allentown, PA—When college students head out for a night of underage drinking, a potential run-in with police may be the last thing on their minds.
"You're not thinking about, 'Am I going to get caught tonight?' " said Peter Wertz, a 20-year-old junior at DeSales University. "You don't expect to get caught when you drink. It's become almost a social norm in college for kids."
Beginning Christmas Eve, the $300 fine that underage drinkers have faced will increase to $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for a second offense, a change made largely because of costly, time-consuming alcohol-fueled crime in State College, home to Penn State University.
Lawmakers say the fine increase is meant to serve as a beefed-up deterrent and a way for towns to cover the costs of dealing with alcohol-related crimes. Violators, as they always have, also face the loss of their driver's license.
Most agree the increased penalties will do little to make underage drinkers think twice about grabbing a Natural Light or downing a shot of Jägermeister.
"I don't think when underage people are drinking that they're even thinking about (the fine)," said Craig M. Summers, chief of police in Kutztown, which deals with its share of alcohol-related crimes involving Kutztown University students. "I don't think $500 is that tipping point. It needs to be $1,000 for that first offense."
State Sen. Jake Corman, prime sponsor of the bill that was signed into law last month by Gov. Tom Corbett, said the fine hike was designed to give underage drinkers more pause for thought, but also to give college towns like Kutztown help in offsetting their cost of responding to alcohol-fueled crime.
Corman, a Republican who represents Centre, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry and Union counties, said the bill was proposed after discussions with officials in State College, where alcohol-related crime is driving up policing costs.
Thomas J. Fountaine, State College's borough manager, testified at a September hearing that it's not only football weekends, but "week in, week out activity associated with excessive and high-risk alcohol use that truly creates significant costs and contributes greatly to the over $3 million that the borough spends annually to address these issues."
Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Statistics show State College police in 2011 handled 535 liquor law violations, 295 drunkenness cases and 2,150 disorderly conduct cases. Combined, they represented a large percentage of Centre County's overall crime total, those statistics show.
The borough's police chief said two-thirds of all crime in the borough is alcohol-related and that 657 Penn State students were transported to hospitals for alcohol overdoses in 2011.
"Last year, the average blood-alcohol content for students requiring medical attention was 0.287, an all-time high," Chief Thomas R. King told lawmakers.
Officials from West Chester and Indiana boroughs, both home to universities, provided similar testimony at hearings about the strain that alcohol-related crimes put on their police forces.
"West Chester has a very real problem with excessive alcohol consumption and a lack of resources to allow the community to manage that problem," Ernie McNeely, West Chester's borough manager, testified before a legislative committee.
The statistics in Kutztown are similarly telling. The borough, with a population of about 5,000, dealt with 116 liquor law violations, 57 drunkenness complaints and 115 disorderly conduct cases in 2011, according to state statistics. By comparison, Birdsboro, another Berks County borough of similar size, reported seven liquor law offenses, four drunkenness cases and 14 disorderly conducts.
Currently, underage drinking violations carry a maximum $300 fine for a first offense and $500 for each subsequent offense. Public drunkenness carries a $300 fine for first and repeat offenses.
Corman pointed out that the public drunkenness fine hasn't been changed since 1972 and, if adjusted for inflation, it would currently be around $1,650.
Summers, the Kutztown police chief, said young people caught drinking underage are most often concerned about losing their driver's license. He said they'll typically enter a plea to another offense in order to salvage their driving privileges.