Match punishment to crime

Published 8:23 am Friday, October 8, 2010

Oh, how times have changed. And, somehow, even as they change for the better they change for the worse.

An Associated Press story on Wednesday reported that three University of Wisconsin students have been fined $86,000 for serving alcohol at a house party.

This would have been inconceivable back in the day when I was a University of Wisconsin ag student. Having a keg of beer in the basement lounge on a pre-football Friday night was an actual dorm-approved activity back in the 1970’s and I can still remember my first weekend at the dorm, trying to hide that I was drinking a mug of juice because I didn’t like beer, had never had a glass of wine and couldn’t have conceived of drinking harder liquor. (That stand, unfortunately, did not last for very long.)

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But back then the legal drinking age was 18 and campus authorities hadn’t yet realized that they would look bad and, worse, get sued by angry parents if they permitted alcohol in dorms.

Which isn’t to say that allowing — heck, encouraging — 18-year-olds to drink was a good thing. It’s just how it was. We had to figure out for ourselves how utterly stupid it was to drink to excess.

Some figured it out faster than others. Some never got a clue. And a couple of young people, somewhere on campus every year, let alcohol get them in fatal trouble. The funny thing is, I don’t think the actual bad stuff due to alcohol was any worse then than it is now that society officially hates but secretly condones drinking.

Anyway, the $86,000 fine got my attention. It also no doubt temporarily got the attention of many 20- and 21-year-olds in Madison, Wis.

And as much as I support the idea that young people shouldn’t drink to excess — I hope, like every parent, that my own college-age children don’t — I do wonder how much good it really does to levy a ridiculous-sized penalty on people who can’t possibly afford it.

If the goal of that $86,000 fine was to exact society’s revenge for a youthful mistake, then it will work well. Add $28,000-plus (each kid’s share of the fine) to a typical student loan burden and you’ve got a mountain of debt that few people can climb and which may well knock these men’s young lives right out orbit. That should teach them.

It also no doubt made the city of Madison’s prosecutor and elected officials look really good to taxpayers and voters who thinking getting tough is the only answer.

But what did anyone else gain? About all that giant fine taught most young people is that they need to be sneakier about their under-age drinking. Our country learned during Prohibition that fines, jail and even death don’t do much to prevent drinking — indeed, Prohibition-era accounts report that the danger added to the spice. People haven’t changed that much in 80 years. Including governments that think showy action is better than meaningful action.

The real danger comes when all of us, the public at large, start to believe that dumb but showy government actions are the best we can do. Kind of like when prosecutors try 13-year-olds as adults; sure, it sounds and looks like good, tough action, but who does it help?

This is the point where column writers would typically point out their own brilliant solution. But I don’t know what the right way is to prevent youthful alcohol abuse. Quite possibly there isn’t one.

There is, however, at least a partial answer when some elected-type claims he’s accomplished something by implementing a showy solution. Ask what was really accomplishes, and ask him to do better next time.