State liquor commissioner urges bar-entry age at 21
A letter sent last week to parents of University of Illinois students asks their help in combating the annual drinking bash known as Unofficial St. Patrick's Day on March 7.
That's fine, says parent Cynthia Cronin Cahill, but she has a request for the UI as well: use your clout to raise the bar-entry age from 19 to 21 year-round, not just during Unofficial.
Is Unofficial a good thing for C-U? Ask Tom Kacich about it here
Cahill happens to be a member of the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, which hosted its annual College Town Summit on Wednesday at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign.
"Why can't the university put pressure on bar owners to always have 21 as the bar entry age?" she asked UI officials.
Cahill has two daughters at the UI, including a freshman, who can "get in any bar and drink any night of the week," she said later. "It is a major problem. When the flagship university of this state is one of the top party schools in the nation, we have a problem."
That argument has made the rounds for decades as city and campus officials try to curb underage drinking and the problems associated with it.
Bar owners and others counter that closing off bars to 19- and 20-year-olds on a college campus will push students to drink at off-campus private parties that can't be supervised or regulated the way bars are.
"There's been a lot of people who've suggested it over the years," said Kam's owner Eric Meyer, who attended Wednesday's summit as he has for several years. He said bars provide "a safer environment for young people to be."
"It's a conundrum. If that were the logical, obvious only answer, I'm sure someone would have gone ahead and done it. It's not quite as simple as that," said Robin Kaler, UI associate chancellor for public affairs.
Cahill said she "expected that answer," but said the bar entry age should mirror the state's legal drinking age.
Another commissioner, Bill Morris of Grays Lake, said the liquor commission has no authority to promote legislation or force local liquor commissions to change their regulations. But it does conduct compliance checks to see if bars and other liquor license holders are checking IDs for underage drinkers, and it can revoke the license of any business that has repeat violations.
"We see a lot more Champaign-Urbana cases than I'd like to see," he said.
Morris said the governor has urged the board to rein in underage drinking. He said he and Cahill, the commission's two newest members, have taken a tough approach, arguing for heavier fines and suspensions for repeat offenders. Fines have risen from $1.6 million to $2 million over the past couple of years, almost all of them for underage drinking, he said.
"I'm a liberal Democrat and she's a conservative Republican. We're both hanging judges on this topic," said Morris, a former mayor and liquor commissioner in Waukegan.
"The board is much more aggressive now," he said. "We all agree we can't stop it. But we're in charge of these people's children. It's our job to use what power we can."
DeKalb, home to Northern Illinois University, has prohibited anyone under 21 from entering bars for years and had some serious off-campus incidents since then, Morris said.
Mayor John Rey said the city has a new Crime-Free Housing Ordinance, which includes a section requiring landlords to take action against underage parties and disruptive behavior. The city initially got "pushback" from landlords, he said, but responsible owners have since stepped up and dealt with problem tenants.
A new state law that took effect in 2013 also holds individuals criminally responsible for hosting a party and knowingly allowing underage drinking.
Vice Chancellor Renee Romano told Cahill that UI officials are studying Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, which passed a law several years ago prohibiting anyone under age 21 from being in bars after 10 p.m.
Romano said she is often asked how the UI can "allow" Unofficial to occur, even though it has taken numerous steps to derail the event.
"We have been working on this issue for many years, all of us," she said. "It takes a village."
At Wednesday's summit, UI and Champaign-Urbana officials detailed their cooperative efforts to curb underage drinking and its fallout, including bar sweeps and other enforcement details; counseling referrals; education programs for students, resident advisers, and fraternities and sororities; and training for bar employees to spot underage drinkers. A campus-community coalition coordinates those efforts.
Brian Farber, director of the UI's student discipline system, said there's a "wide safety net" to try to identify and help students with a pattern of alcohol abuse and prevent it from escalating into bigger problems.
"Our goal is really about health and safety. Our students don't always perceive it that way," he said.
The policy is abstinence first, under state law, he said, but the UI also promotes "safe, low-risk and responsible behavior." Students are told: don't drink and drive, know whom you are drinking with, find a safe location, don't drink to get drunk.
The UI's student discipline system handles hundreds of cases each year involving underage drinking, DUIs or other related offenses. Jason McKean, an area coordinator for UI Housing, said a third of the disciplinary complaints he deals with involve alcohol. Almost half of the 158 alcohol violations he saw last spring were related to Unofficial, he said, which always results in an "incident bump."
"There is no magic bullet or one single thing that a college or university can do to address alcohol problems," Farber said. "Changing the bar-entry age for Champaign will not in and of itself solve alcohol abuse issues amongst college students. Instead we have to use all of the multi-layered approaches — enforcement, education, treatment, counseling, support."
The Champaign Police Department conducts several kinds of investigations to check for underage drinking at local bars. Here are the numbers for 2013, according to Lt. Jim Clark.
— Bar checks (police checking customer IDs in bars): 17 checks, 578 violations
— Street sweeps (plainclothes officers patroling campus): 10 checks, 128 violations
— Compliance checks (whether bartenders check customer IDs): 39 checks, 194 bars and 30 failures, an 85 percent compliance rate
— Fake ID details: 3 checks, 18 violations