Time To Go Easy On Bars That Serve Teens?
Jim Graham, the D.C. council member whose district includes the watering holes of Adams Morgan and U Street, has long been the city's tough guy on underage drinking. When clubs get nabbed for serving minors, Graham is often first on the scene, shining the light of publicity on the offenders and calling for the nightspots to be shut down.
But now Graham is the leader of a move to lighten penalties for establishments caught serving underage customers. Instead of being slapped with a $1,000 fine and a two-day suspension of their liquor licenses for a first offense, bars that serve kids would only get a warning the first time. The council tentatively approved the change at its last meeting and is set to make a final decision tomorrow.
The District's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is appalled by the move to ease penalties. "This change would give the District of Columbia one of the lightest penalties for this type of offense" in the nation, board chairman Peter Feather wrote in a letter urging the council to back off from the proposed change. "This dramatic change in policy sends the wrong message regarding the District's willingness to protect its youth from the potential dangers of alcohol." Warnings, the board said, are not enough.
Graham says the impetus for the lighter penalties was a "request that came from the bars," but he quickly adds that "I thought a lot about this and I concluded that this is the right thing to do. I have been out there on this issue. We have sent the message that we are not going to tolerate service to minors."
But Graham says he was moved by testimony at public hearings from bar owners and workers who made it clear that many of the cases in which establishments were shut down resulted from "a distracted employee or an employee who didn't understand the importance of checking ID. These were not cases of places that just didn't care."
Those bars, the ones known on the street as being friendly to underage drinkers, should still have the book thrown at them--and would, Graham says, because those are the repeat offenders. He just doesn't want "responsible, respectable places like Lauriol Plaza or Martin's to be shut down just because of one mistake that doesn't indicate any bigger problem."
Graham says his plan to ease the penalties would be a one-year experiment, and if the ABC board isn't happy with how things are going at that point, the board would be empowered to return to the stricter rules, without needing any vote by the council.
I don't have much love for zero tolerance rules of any kind, but anyone who knows the bar scene knows that there are always places that make a practice of looking the other way when it comes to underage drinking. Those are indeed the places the law should be concerned with, not some waiter at an otherwise adult establishment who gets bamboozled by a good fake ID.
As long as the city's penalties on repeat offenders remain tough enough to serve as a powerful disincentive, and as long as the District keeps sending out undercover teens to test compliance, the taxpayers are well-served. The main problem here is not whether a 20-year-old is mistakenly served a couple of beers; rather, the problem is those club owners that cater to teens and then release dozens of blasted kids onto the sidewalks to drive home or cause a ruckus on neighborhood streets.
The real solution is not to tinker with the penalties levied on bars, but to lower the drinking age to a more reasonable 18 or 19, and, at the same time, to raise the driving age to at least that level.
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