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Warm spring weekends signal the beginning of "kegger" patrols for Yellowstone County deputies. Underage drinking parties in homes and in the countryside lead to minor in possession arrests weekly this time of year, Undersheriff Jay Bell said.

In fact, more than 10,000 MIP tickets a year are written by Montana law officers. The number isn't surprising: Montana teens are more likely to use alcohol than they are to smoke cigarettes or to use other drugs.

What will it take to persuade Montana minors not to drink?

Prevention bill Senate Bill 362, championed by Sen. Duane Grimes, R-Clancy, and now on the governor's desk, proposes these sanctions for people under 18 for MIP:

- A minimum fine of $100 for first offense and higher minimums for repeat offenders

- Mandatory 20 hours of community service

- Mandatory attendance at an alcohol education class — for the offender and a parent or guardian

- Mandatory alcohol use assessment and a requirement to obtain recommended chemical dependency treatment for repeat offenders

- Confiscation of the minor's driver's license. It wouldn't be returned until the penalties were paid.

Gov. Judy Martz's office and departments that would be affected by the legislation were still reviewing the bill Tuesday, a spokesman for the governor said.

onthenet SB 362

"This is a prevention bill," said Bill Muhs, of Bozeman, president of Gallatin County Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "It's one of the best underage drinking laws in the nation. The focus is on making alcohol and drug education mandatory for the offender, and the parent or guardian must attend the education and must pay for it."

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Muhs is disappointed that the MIP sanctions in SB362 were lessened for people ages 18-20. "College kids got a break," he said.

Cultural change SB362 is a good plan, but a law on the books won't change a drinking culture overnight. MIP laws have been difficult to enforce. Some young offenders don't comply with court orders and their parents don't care.

"Parents definitely need to be paying attention to this," said Joy Mariska, director of Youth Court Services in Billings. A large proportion of juveniles Mariska's office deals with for criminal offenses have been using alcohol.

Between Jan. 1 and May 6, three Montana drivers under age 21 involved in fatal accidents had been drinking, according to preliminary data from the Highway Patrol.

Muhs and Grimes served on the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Task Force appointed last year by Martz and Attorney General Mike McGrath. The bill incorporates task force recommendations.

Most legislators supported SB362. The governor's statewide task force representing law enforcement, treatment, industry and community agencies recommended the bill's main provisions. It is endorsed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

We urge Martz to join these SB362 supporters by signing the bill into law. The governor can send a message to parents and teens — underage drinking has serious consequences in Montana.

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