New Jessamine law holds adults responsible for underage drinking

Jessamine County officials will hold a forum for the public next week to explain provisions of the county's "social host ordinance," which makes it a misdemeanor for adults to hold parties where underage drinking occurs.

The Jessamine County Health Department and several other agencies are jointly holding the session, which is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at West Jessamine High School.

Jessamine County Fiscal Court adopted the social host ordinance last year.

But with the 2012 season for high school graduations and proms approaching, officials decided this was the time to explain and promote the measure for the general public, said Shana Peterson, health educator with the Jessamine County Health Department.

"The ordinance did not get a great deal of news coverage, and that's why we're hosting this forum to offer education for parents before this peak season of high school parties," Peterson said Tuesday.

Various topics will be covered at the meeting, including how parents or guardians are responsible for preventing underage drinking on their property, according to a news release from the health department.

The news release notes that while 18-to-20-year-olds are considered adults in most ways, it is illegal for them to drink alcohol.

Various prizes and give-aways will be offered at the forum. Peterson said a flat-screen TV will be given to the school with the most parents and students at the forum. Tips also will be available on how to keep teen parties and gatherings alcohol-free.

The Jessamine County social host ordinance basically prohibits adults from holding parties on their premises if they know that juveniles might obtain, possess or consume alcohol during the party and don't take reasonable steps to prevent it.

For a first violation, an adult could face a fine of up to $250 and up to 90 days in jail. Fines and jail time could increase to $500 and 12 months for a subsequent violation.

Several Kentucky communities have approved similar measures during the past several years aimed at combating underage drinking by plugging loopholes in existing laws, said Angela Criswell, alcohol prevention coordinator with the Bluegrass Regional Prevention Center in Lexington. The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government has had such an ordinance on its book for years, Criswell said.

"There is some variation in the ordinances. But the intent is to hold responsible parties accountable for underage drinking parties through criminal fines or potential jail time," she said.

Some ordinances also make violators responsible for any response costs by police or other first responders, she said.

Prevention groups around the country have championed such ordinances as effective strategies to prevent teen drinking parties. According to Criswell, friends' houses and parties statistically are the two main places where teens drink.

Criswell, who will take part in next week's forum at West Jessamine High School, said ordinances are "more about preventing the tragedies caused by underage drinking" than "about punishing parents or property owners."

"The strength of these ordinances is deterrence," she said. "You want parents and other adults to be aware that this is what the law is, and here is why underage drinking is something you need to be aware of.

"If you're going to allow kids over for a party, make sure there is no alcohol because there are consequences if that happens."