Young people arrested in Lycoming County for underage drinking have an alternative to the usual license suspension and mark on the record that accompanies that offense.
What's required of an offender who wants to avoid the standard punishment is no cop out.
The Lycoming County Underage Drinking Court was founded by Judge Marc Lovecchio and Chris Deal of the West Branch Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission in 2008.
Those who enter the program, the only one of its kind in the Commonwealth, have their citation dismissed and avoid a suspended driver's license in exchange for completing "far more rigorous and time-consuming requirements" than exist on the books, Lovecchio said.
Before graduation, the Underage Drinking Court asks participants to attend six court sessions; complete a counseling course; spend at least 15 hours with someone whose life has been affected by alcohol and drugs; perform a community service project; and then present a project summarizing their program experience.
"The underage drinking statute allowed first offenders to do what's known as a preadjudication program - the difference was that participants would still lose their license and obligations were relatively minor," Lovecchio said. "What we developed was a different model; because of that we needed to get everyone on board - law enforcement officers, the district attorney's office, judges and service providers."
Nearly 200 young people charged with underage drinking have graduated the program since it began in June 2008.
"By accommodating we're able to expand and serve more," Lovecchio said. "You have to be flexible and accommodating with that age group. You get some who are only home for the summer, some who are from other counties."
A $150 fee paid by participants covers costs for the program. The court sessions they attend are not lectures.
"Chris and I deal with them on a real honest and basic level - it's not a judge proselytizing," Lovecchio said. "I tell them about my own misdeeds and relate tons of cases that I've had in court. You get these kids who were out at these big parties - you go through what they did in detail and they realize how unsafe they were."
"It's fun to hear them laugh," Deal said.
"We show movies, but not your typical drug and alcohol movie," Lovecchio said. "Like 'Leaving Las Vegas' with Nicolas Cage, the story of a guy who drinks himself to death."
"The kids come up with their own service projects," Deal said. "When they create it they're much more invested.
We've had kids bake pies for the fire company, build chicken coops, design a recreational weekend activity at an elementary school, coach sports.
"So many more young people are more concerned about getting projects done right than I am. We're not out for performance, we're out to give experience, to see what they learn."
Quotes from graduates of the court show that its regimen can inspire a deeper contemplation of life's challenges.
"I don't want to fail at life when I know I can be so much more," said one court alum.
"It has helped me look at the bigger picture, not just the now," said another.
"A lot of this stuff is self-reflective. They confront why they made the bad decisions," Lovecchio said. "What we've learned through the program is that not everything works for everybody a cookie-cutter approach doesn't work."
Deal presented a keynote address on the court's work at a Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board conference on reducing underage alcohol abuse this past April.
"Interest has been generated in some counties in this," Deal said. "This is an experiential learning model. We're taking all the surveys and putting them into a research paper."
The number of offenders who have taken advantage of the court is "lower than I'd like," Lovecchio said.
"Some people, I'll tell them what's required and they'll say, 'Hey, I'm not doing that,'" said Judge Allen P. Page III, whose district includes Lycoming College. "Especially when people get cited on the evening of their birthday, or the next morning - they're not interested in an alternative program."
Of 187 underage drinking cases processed at Judge Page's court since 2008, 26 have received the dismissal that comes with participation in the Underage Drinking Court's program, while 122 have pleaded or been found guilty.
Out of 30 cases in Judge Page's district in 2011, four people received a dismissal; of 26 cases so far in 2012, three were dismissed.
The Underage Drinking Court is "not something we generally promote at the time of the incident," said Lt. David Mauck of the Penn College Police. "If they come to us after they've sobered up and heard about it and ask for it, at that time it's discussed."
"Those I've personally sent through have done very well," said Chief William Solomon of the Old Lycoming Township Police. "It's an individual officer decision to refer them. It's not made on behalf of the department."
However many youth enter the program, the results it has shown so far are encouraging.
A survey of court graduates has found that 88 percent have not had any additional legal charges after graduating, and 94 percent have not had any more underage drinking charges or DUIs. Deal hopes that as more results are collected, funding may be found to expand the program.
"The judges here are at the forefront of these diversionary courts," Lovecchio said. "This was the first in Pennsylvania; I'm tremendously pleased that Judge (Nancy) Butts is so supportive of these kinds of models. It's not just all about incarcerating people and hoping that they change."