CLARKE COUNTY, Ga. - Nearly 1,000 minors are arrested for alcohol possession each year in Clarke County, leaving them with criminal records instead of citations.
Police say the behavior they see should not be tolerated, but some are asking if Georgia’s youth are being unnecessarily criminalized.
Saturday night in downtown Athens means University of Georgia students and other revelers are shoulder-to-shoulder working their way among dozens of bars. Everyone seems to be drinking, and plenty of them are under 21. In many college towns, you might get a pass, but not in Athens.
"Here, you get arrested. It’s a lot bigger deal. It goes on your record," a UGA student said.
In each of the last three years, Clarke County jailed nearly 1,000 underage drinkers, out of a total of 2,919 arrests for 2009, 2010 and 2011. That's more than 4 1/2 more times the 640 jailed for the same charge in Fulton County, though the county has far more people -- and as many or more college students.
“I would never want people to lose a job because they were 19 years old and were drunk. Most people were drunk when they were 19 years old," another UGA student said.
Former DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, a former University of Georgia student body president, sifted through three years of Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrest data while researching for an article to be published by the State Bar of Georgia in February. He documented the pattern students, parents and plenty of lawyers already know: Get caught drinking underage in Athens and you go to jail.
He told Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher, "Our experience has been throughout our history that criminalizing behavior does not necessarily change behavior, and it certainly hasn't where alcohol is concerned."
Morgan contends it's a bad policy.
"When we raised the drinking age to 21, all we did was say, ‘OK, we're going to have more kids violating the law,’" he said.
And state law gives police the discretion to issue a citation rather than make an arrest, unless the suspect is clearly intoxicated.
Joseph Lumpkin has been chief of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department for 20 years.
He told Belcher, "We've given, in the past years, people citations, and they tore them up in our face."
Lumpkin added, "The person being arrested in Athens-Clarke County for underage possession, in 90-plus percent of the time, has overconsumed and is endangering him or herself. It's not the person who has had a beer."
For UGA students and other young drinkers, there's also a university police department with nearly 90 officers. Chief Jimmy Williamson, like Chief Lumpkin, is certain that students are not unfairly targeted.
"When you look at our 2011 charges for underage, almost 50 percent had other charges like DUI and other things," Williamson said.
And Williamson said arresting roughly 20 people a week, three per day is not proof that police are singling out underage drinkers.
"Oh, you ask the students, 'Could we do more than three a night?' and see what they say," Williamson said.
But Morgan contends arrests for underage drinking has long-term consequences that are too severe.
"For every application you have for a job, for every application you have for graduate school, the first question on the first page is ‘Have you ever been arrested?'” said Morgan.
Williamson said his hands are tied.
"When I find a young lady passed out in the bushes with vomit all over her -- or a man -- what do I do? Put a citation in her hand?" Williamson said. "Over 5 percent of them require medical intervention when we arrive.”
“Fifteen percent are DUI. When we look at those numbers, it's not just as simple to say, 'Well, I'll just give them a citation and let them walk way,’" Lumpkin said.
Campus and county police also said a substantial percentage of the people they arrest are not UGA students.
With a fine and monthly probation fee, arrests are more expensive than citations, but police said that is not their motivation.
"We can write a citation in five minutes. An arrest takes 45-minutes, so it's not about money. It's dealing with the person that's over the top," Williamson told Belcher.
But defense attorney Bubba Head argues the arrest policy is not a deterrent, "Because the people are under the same impression that most of my clients are -- the wrong impression -- that I'm not going to get caught."