Words by: Caelin Mills
Portage County’s diversion program aims to give first time offenders a second chance and educate them on the dangers of underage drinking.
According to Linda Broska, programs coordinator for Kent’s Family and Community Services, the program was written in 2000 at the request of the prosecutor and municipal court judges at the time.
“Oct. 27, 2000 is when the underage consumption diversion program came into play and that is the program that we use now,” Broska said.
First, the offender must have no previous alcohol-related convictions. They must then enter a guilty plea upon arraignment, where the judge can offer the program.
Judge Barbara Oswick of Portage County Municipal Court has referred many people to the program in her 15 years on the bench.
“They can only have that charge,” Oswick said. “If they have a number of other charges, they probably are not going to be eligible.”
She says exceptions are occasionally made for minor offenses or crimes committed at the same time, such as a disorderly conduct charge with an underage drinking charge, but never for serious charges such as driving under the influence.
If someone is not eligible for the diversion program, the consequences are more severe.
“It’s a first degree misdemeanor, which is the most serious misdemeanor in municipal court,” Oswick said. “A first degree misdemeanor carries with it up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $1000.”
According to Oswick, the court typically does not send offenders to jail for this charge. Before the diversion program, fines, jail and community work service were the only punishments.
“Prior to the year 2000, it was just you had a $1000 fine for an underage, you had 30 consecutive days in jail and they had them go to a program called Think About Your Future, which was an education piece,” Broska said. “That education piece is the same education piece that we still use now for the actual diversion program.”
Think About Your Future is a class consisting of multiple speakers including a nurse, a state highway patrolman and a paraplegic. Each offers a personal account and unique perspective of how alcohol can negatively impact or even destroy lives.
“It’s two hours and when I did attend it, you could hear a pin drop,” Oswick said. “Nobody was talking, it was serious.”
The participant must complete an initial substance abuse evaluation as well as counseling before moving ahead with the diversion program.
Pat White serves as a therapist for the diversion program and is licensed by the Ohio Chemical Dependency Credentialing Board. He completes the initial screening for the diversion program.
“What we do is we do a screening, White said. “The way we do that is by a battery of questions that talk about their past use, family use of substances, any previous trouble they’ve gotten into, when they started, the age that they began drinking.”
White says early onset is one of the main indicators of someone who may develop a serious alcohol problem.
“Early onset is somebody who starts in their early teens, like 12 or 13 and does more than have a sip out of dad’s beer,” White says.
He hesitates to use the term binge drinking when describing the drinking habits of college students. 75 percent of the Portage County diversion program’s participants are Kent State University students.
Despite this, data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows underage binge drinking is slightly more common in Ohio compared to the national average, although it has been steadily decreasing since 2009.
The amount of participants in the diversion program reflects this as well, aside from a 2016 spike.
He says while it’s common for college students to drink to excess, those who overdo it and exhibit symptoms of alcoholism stand out.
“I think of them kind of having a switch and when they have the alcohol in their system, it’s like a switch was thrown and they immediately, almost immediately start making bad decisions, which is drinking a lot more than they should, drinking publicly and in risky ways,” White said.
He says this can show up as someone who frequently drinks to intoxication that leads to blacking out, getting in fights, driving drunk or passing out.
“They’re in college, they’re cut loose in some ways for the first time, it’s really difficult to kind of hang that big letter ‘A’ on them,” White said. “But if everything kind of indicates that, I would say it’s a small percentage of them, but I will refer them on for further evaluation.”
When this is the case, the individual is referred back to the court.
“If our counselors determine that somebody really has a serious problem, that this isn’t just a stupid one night deal or whatever, that somebody has a really serious addiction problem, they will refer that person back to us so that we can order that they really do a thorough program,” Oswick says.
As for other warning signs or common characteristics of those who may be at-risk, mental health is a major factor.
White says he has seen more and more participants who have previously been diagnosed with anxiety or depression. He says many of those who have gotten further referrals have a history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
White says this is more prevalent than he would have thought before holding this position.
“That was always thought to be something that happened to people when they got older,” White said.
Broska recently signed the ten-thousandth receipt for the program.
“I thought it was a big thing when we hit a thousand and now ten thousand!” Broska said. “Ten thousand young people have come through this program.”
With only approximately 20 offenders each year not completing the program, it is difficult to argue against its success.
“Our rate of success is phenomenal as far as I’m concerned,” Broska said. “I’ve been with it since the beginning and I’ll retire from it.”
Ever wonder what happens to all those college students that get caught drinking underage? I decided to find out: https://t.co/WOcz8bsCCg
— Caelin Mills (@CaelinMills) November 10, 2018