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Michigan changes underage drinking law

For years, many legislatures' knee-jerk response to virtually every issue of public safety was to make whatever the activity was a crime and if it already was a crime, they would increase the penalties. Over the years, as the prison population across the nation and in Michigan has soared, it has become clear that for many activities, their criminal status was not much of a deterrent to the activity.

Underage drinking, for instance. At one time, the drinking age in Michigan was 18 years of age. But the sheer numbers of young people who died in motor vehicle crashes involving alcohol led to its increase. Now, every state in the nation prohibits alcohol consumption for those younger than age 21. Underage drinking has been a misdemeanor in Michigan, but a new law changes that.

It will become a civil infraction and will not create a criminal record. A second underage drinking offense, however, is a criminal offense and could lead to jail time and fines. The lawmaker, a former county sheriff, who introduced the bill felt that young people who make this type of mistake should be liberated from the burden a criminal record for a single youthful indiscretion.

The law needs to be flexible and judges need to have the discretion to treat offenders in a way that will allow sentences designed to fit the crime. This is especially important when it comes to dealing with young people. Research has found that brain development may not reach full maturity until the mid-twenties. Adult decision-making capabilities may not be developed at age 19 or 20, so it may be unfair to expected carefully reasoned judgment at this age.

The consequence of a DUI conviction can be devastating, for everything from finding a job or housing to getting into the school you want or obtaining student loans. Of course, because those under 21 may lack astute judgment is all the more reason they should not drink and drive, but if they are caught, they can learn from their error and prevent the arrest from becoming permanently damaging.


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