Last year Alex Murk and Calvin Li were killed in a car crash after leaving a party at the home of a friend whose father let a group of Rockville teens hold a drunken revelry in his basement. It's illegal for adults in Maryland to give alcohol to anyone under 21 or to knowingly allow it to be consumed by an underage person in their home. But parents frequently ignore the law. When the party was over, Alex and Calvin climbed into the back seat of a car driven by another friend who had been drinking heavily. They never made it home.
Yet the parent who allowed the teens to drink got little more than a slap on the wrist for his role in the tragic loss of two young lives. In Maryland, violating the law against underage drinking carries a maximum penalty of a $2,500 fine for each count, and there's no possibility of a jail term. Kenneth Saltzman, who owned the home where the party occurred, was issued two criminal citations for allowing underage drinking and paid $5,000 in fines — a piffling sum that can hardly be considered much of a deterrent.
That's why we support legislation in the General Assembly this year that would stiffen the penalty for adults who allow underage drinking in their home to up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine for a first offense, and up to two years in prison and $7,500 for a second violation. Last week the measure, dubbed, "Alex and Calvin's Law," sailed through a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing and was passed unanimously on the Senate floor. We urge lawmakers in the House of Delegates to follow the example of their Senate colleagues.
Underage drinking is a serious public health problem in Maryland and nationally. Alcohol-related traffic deaths are the leading cause of death among teens with more than 4,000 a year, a figure that exceeds the number of teen deaths from all illegal drugs combined. Currently 26 states allow prison terms for adults who host underage drinkers in their homes, and law enforcement officials say such laws can be a powerful deterrent against parents violating the law. At the Senate committee hearing lawmakers were told that jurisdictions with strong hosting laws have seen a significant drop in the incidence of drunk-driving injuries and fatalities among teens.
So why would parents permit any underage drinking in their houses at all? One reason seems to be that they don't fully appreciate the risks involved. They may even think they are helping keep their children safe by encouraging underage drinking in their homes, where they can at least keep an eye on what their children are doing. But they're wrong on both counts.
Many parents have no idea how much their children are drinking. For example, the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving reported that 99 percent of parents say they wouldn't serve alcohol to teens, yet 28 percent of teens themselves say they've been to parent-supervised parties where alcohol was available. MADD also found that one in six teenagers engage in binge drinking, but only one in 100 parents believes their child is a binge drinker. Nor do most parents realize that that the age group between 12 and 20 is responsible for 11 percent of all the alcohol consumed in the U.S., or that nearly half of all 10th-graders have already begun drinking.
There's an equally insidious misconception among parents who think it's safer to let their underage children to drink in a controlled, supervised environment rather than in a public place. In fact, when underage drinkers consume alcohol in a home where a parent is present they indeed feel safer — but the result is that they end up drinking more than they would otherwise, which leads to all sorts of other problems, including alcohol poisoning, unwanted, unplanned and unprotected sexual activity and violence. In 2010, there were approximately 189,000 emergency rooms visits by people under 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol.
Previous attempts to stiffen the law in this area have failed to gain much traction in Maryland, but this year Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, the County Council and county police are all backing a measure that would strengthen the deterrent for adults who allow underage drinking in their homes. Teenagers don't have the experience or maturity to make good judgments about the risks they are taking when they drink, and too often that translates into a fatal accident when they get behind the wheel of a car. Adults who refuse to recognize that are as much to blame as are the youthful victims, and Maryland must hold them accountable.