Controversy brews over judge’s rulings

By Chris DeVille U-WIRE

ATHENS, Ohio – A judge’s sentencing policy has a local Ohio University-area attorney worried that underage drinkers don’t know they could face time in jail for a second conviction.

“They’re basically getting hammered,” said Patrick McGee, managing attorney for the Center for Student Legal Services, but he wasn’t referring to youths’ blood-alcohol content.

Judge William A. Grim, of the Athens County Municipal Court, has become stricter in recent months, sentencing second-time underage drinkers to two days in jail, McGee said.

Grim said jail time for second-time offenders is not new – he put the guideline in place when he took office about two years ago, and he applies it to most crimes, not just underage drinking. The difference is now he is facing an unusually high number of second-time offenders, he said.

Grim said he thinks first-time offenders made a mistake in judgment, while second-time offenders made a conscious decision that, except in rare cases of physical alcoholism or mental health problems, indicates an attitude problem.

“I try to be as gentle as possible the first time through,” Grim said. “That almost always works.”

First-time underage drinkers are offered a chance to complete the court’s diversion program, which allows them to avoid a criminal record. The program charges offenders $150 for a three-hour alcohol counseling session and requires 12 hours of court-approved community service.

Grim said he believes in behavior modification and progressive discipline, which requires more severe measures for repeat offenders.

“If what I do the first time is not effective, I need to do something to progress to the next level,” he said. “I don’t want any repeated business.”

McGee said he does not object to the jail sentences on legal grounds, but he questions their effectiveness.

“They’re going to be aware that they’re breaking the law,” McGee said. “Will it make a difference on this campus? No.”

Students also might not realize that Ohio University judiciaries can use convictions to suspend or expel them, McGee said.