In the pilot year of the local Underage Alcohol Diversion program, about 10 percent of offenders opted for this alternative to forgo conviction.
The Vermillion Police Department reported 278 underage consumption citations last year. Twenty-seven people chose to participate in the diversion program, while 11 have successfully completed the 60-day course.
“It’s pretty close to what I expected, because this program was created to be difficult,” VPD Capt. Chad Passick said. “We wanted to create an option for people who wanted to apply themselves, but we didn’t want it to be a rubber-stamp program.”
Eleven of the 27 are still in the process of finishing the program, while five either withdrew or failed. Passick said to his knowledge, the majority are University of South Dakota students.
Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe was part of the coalition with VPD and Student Government Association members who created the program. He said despite how many people use the option, he is proud that it is a viable alternative for those who “had a hiccup in an effort to stay out of trouble” and are willing to work to keep the conviction off their record.
“It’s a commitment, and it’s intended to be,” Howe said.
There are two elements to the diversion program that might account for the low participation. One is merely qualifying.
A candidate, 18 or older, must be a first-time offender with a pending charge of underage consumption. This must also be the only offense in the incident, so someone cited for underage drinking and vandalism or a DWI are automatically disqualified.
Location makes a difference, too. An eligible offender must have been charged by the VPD or the Clay County Sheriff’s Office. Those charged by other agencies with jurisdiction in Clay County such as the South Dakota Highway Patrol or the USD Police Department must be referred to the program by Teddi Gertsma, Clay County State’s Attorney.
Gertsma said she has not seen a change in her office when dealing with underage consumption violations because many still go to court. But she said the “huge commitment” of the diversion program is intended to be an option other than a conviction and $120 fine.
The commitment is rigorous. Program participants have to undergo twice-daily preliminary breath tests to prove they are abstaining from alcohol. For 60 days, they have to appear at the Clay County Sheriff’s Office each morning and evening to blow in the PBT device, according to VPD’s website. The cost of PBT testing is $120, so offenders are not forgoing the fine they would otherwise be paying with a conviction.
Passick said one of the critical aspects of the diversion program is its partnership with USD’s student counseling services.
“Hopefully, we can reach out and identify some of the root causes of this behavior,” Passick said. “We want to give them a chance to judge if they are going in the wrong direction and help them identify problems before they become too big.”
One of the shortcomings of the program that has become clear since it began last March is that participants can only be tested in Vermillion. Howe and Passick said this has discouraged some people from taking part because it would mean staying in town over breaks.
But there are students willing to make the commute. Howe said he knows of a participant who drove from Sioux Falls to Vermillion each day to continue the program over break. Another, he said, had to forgo his 21st birthday celebrations to pass PBT testing.
Former SGA senator Rachelle Norberg is a vocal proponent of the program. She first presented a resolution in support of the option last year as chair of the State and Local committee that passed, 18-5. She also worked individually with local law enforcement to get the diversion program off the ground.
Norberg has since spoken to half a dozen students who have used the program. Some on the pre-law, pre-med graduation track have told her they are grateful for the second chance.
“I’m glad to hear from students outside of Vermillion, like Brookings or Iowa State or Creighton, that say they wish they’d had the the chance to kind of redeem themselves. They made a mistake, and they know it,” she said.
Law enforcement and students involved in the creation of the program agree that the program is restricted because it has to be administered locally, but flexibility is the next big step for its development.
Passick said expanding the program outside Clay County’s borders may include looking at other state programs to model after. One such alternative is the state’s 24/7 Sobriety Program, which works with chronic DWI defenders into changing their behavior and preventing additional arrests.
“If I had been in that situation, under 21, I would have chosen the program — hands down,” Norberg said.”That’s a personal goal of mine to expand the program statewide. It’s about providing options so one mistake doesn’t haunt you for the rest of your life.”