Skagit County pilots program to curb underage drinking, marijuana use
CONCRETE — A new method of law enforcement is being pioneered in Skagit County.
The Skagit County Sheriff’s Office, in partnership with United General Hospital District 304, is changing the way the department handles underage alcohol and marijuana issues.
Rather than writing a criminal citation when a minor is first caught with alcohol or marijuana, deputies can now issue an “education citation,” which keeps the minor out of the court system and instead in a class.
“It’s keeping them out of court completely, while still holding the kid accountable,” said deputy Paul Wolfe, who has been leading the program for the Sheriff’s Office. “We’re not trying to punish the kids, we’re trying to get them the help they need. Some kids are going to take this opportunity and run with it.”
Funded through a three-year grant from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, the education citation program gives minors a second chance instead of a first offense.
Under the new program, when a deputy encounters a minor consuming alcohol or marijuana, the officer can issue an education citation instead of a criminal citation, Wolfe said.
That education citation keeps the minor’s record clean and gives them three class hours of drug and alcohol information and time with a dependency counselor from Catholic Community Services, said Danika Troupe, program manager with United General Hospital District 304.
“We’re connecting them to resources,” she said. “Connecting with a caring adult is a really, really important thing to preventing drug use later in life.”
In addition to providing minors with education about drugs and alcohol, class time details the ramifications minors could face if they are placed into the judicial system.
“These kids might not otherwise understand,” said Skagit County Deputy Prosecutor Mary Ryan, who handles juvenile cases. “Giving kids a chance to participate in this program and to learn from it and change their behavior ... that’s the goal of juvenile court in and of itself.”
For a first-time offender, Ryan said, a criminal citation often results in deferment or community service.
Those options can still have a long-term impact for a minor, Troupe said. Dealing with the citation through the legal system takes time and money and can result in the minor having a permanent record.
“We know for a fact that early contact with the criminal justice system has a lot of negative outcomes, both health and lifestyle-wise,” Troupe said. “We really just want to create a better system.”
Keeping first-time offending minors out of the criminal justice system saves time and effort, not only for the deputies but for the prosecutors, judges and the entire court system, Skagit County Prosecutor Rich Weyrich said.
“I think it’s a good program,” he said. “It’s not a cure-all by any means, but it’s a good program.”
In its first five months, Wolfe said nine minors took advantage of the program.
“At the end of the day, kids are kids, they make mistakes,” he said. “It allows kids who have made a mistake to turn it around.”
Although Skagit County is piloting the program, there isn’t excessive underage drinking or marijuana use here, Troupe said.
According to the 2016 Healthy Youth Survey — the most recent available — 7 out of 10 high school seniors who responded to the voluntary survey reported not having consumed alcohol in the past month, Troupe said.
“The majority aren’t (drinking),” she said.
More concerning, she said, is that about 20 percent of minors report either driving after drinking or riding with someone who has been drinking.
“That’s a concern that everybody has,” Troupe said. “We’re hoping that these emphasis patrols can make sure that those kids are getting home safe.”
Twenty-two percent report heavy drinking — three or more days or at least one binge-drinking episode — in the past month, according to the survey.
The survey is a joint venture between many state organizations, including the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Department of Health.
“I don’t think it’s any worse than anywhere else, but we’d be naive to say there aren’t kids that are drinking,” Skagit County Sheriff Will Reichardt said. “And that can be a problem. We know that kids sometimes do, and there’s rarely anything good that comes out of that and we want to address it.”
Twenty-three percent of respondents reported using marijuana at least once in the past month, and 10 percent reported using marijuana at least 10 times in the past month, according to the survey.
Not all minors are eligible for the education citation, Reichardt said. If the deputy assesses the situation and believes the program would not be effective, the deputy can issue a criminal citation instead.
If a minor opts to participate in the program but doesn’t comply with the requirements, the criminal citation can still be issued, he said.
Minors are allowed to participate in the program once.
“It’s not for everyone, but I think it can be good for a lot of people,” Reichardt said. “At that age, kids make enough mistakes sober. They certainly don’t need to add alcohol.”
Funding through the grant gives the Sheriff’s Office more flexibility when it comes to enforcement, Troupe said.
Without it, especially in low-staffed areas such as Concrete, a deputy might have to choose whether to prioritize underage enforcement — if there is a suspected party, for example — or regular duties such as speed enforcement or responding to other calls.
The funding from the grant allows them to have another deputy on staff to focus on patrolling for parties, she said.
The program started in Concrete, Wolfe said, so that deputies could work with a small population size.
Because of the success Wolfe has had in east Skagit County, Reichardt said the program will spread department-wide.
“We want to address underage drinking,” Reichardt said. “If we can do that without having to issue a citation and have them go through court ... why do that if we can change behavior in a simpler way and a less obtrusive way? I think this program can do that.”
Other agencies do, too.
The Anacortes, Mount Vernon and Sedro-Woolley police departments are all signing on as well.
“We look at it as a win for the whole system,” Mount Vernon Police Lt. Greg Booth said.
He sees the program as providing another tool law enforcement officers can rely on to keep the community safe, he said.
“We’d much rather use that tool to change the behavior than take a 16- or 17-year-old that has no other criminal history and now they’re in the criminal justice system because of a decision that wasn’t the best,” Booth said. “That kid doesn’t necessarily need to sit in juvenile detention or doesn’t necessarily need to go through the court system to learn that wasn’t a good decision.”
For his work in developing the program, Wolfe was recently honored as one of two 2018 Linda Nelson Community Champion awardees from the Skagit County Child and Family Consortium.
“We’re very proud of deputy Wolfe,” Reichardt said. “He’s put in a lot of his personal time and time on duty in trying to make this program successful because he cares about the community that he polices so much.”
Reichardt and Wolfe said they hope the program continues to be a success.
“We’re progressive enough that we’re trying new things,” Reichardt said. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. I think other people are watching and are aware of what we’re trying to do.”