Underage drinking is the biggest substance abuse problem in Hall County, according to a community task force.
And as Hall County Board of Commissioners consider tonight what to do about several convenience stores that sold alcohol to underage people, the prosecutor who handles the same cases in State Court is looking at new ways to get the attention of the clerks who were criminally charged.
In October and November, Hall County Sheriff’s officials ran compliance checks on 56 stores using undercover, underage operatives.
Of those, 16 stores — or 29 percent — sold alcohol to the operatives. In a roundup following the operation, 16 people were arrested on misdemeanor charges of selling alcohol to underage persons.
Hall County State Court Solicitor-General Stephanie Woodard noted while it’s up to the county commission to sanction business owners with suspensions or revocations of their license to sell alcohol, her office prosecutes the clerks who have to pay the criminal penalties. Typically first-time offenders pay a fine of a few hundred dollars and are placed on probation for a year.
Woodard said she will begin recommending pretrial diversion for first-time offenders who sell alcohol to minors, requiring them to sit in on a session of DUI court, attend a treatment court graduation ceremony and go to a meeting of the Drug Free Coalition of Hall County.
“We want to teach them that it’s more than just a one-time sale of beer to an underage kid,” Woodard said. “You never know when you’re helping someone start an addiction early. We want them to realize the effect it has on the whole community.”
J.P. Banks, director of the Drug Free Coalition of Hall County, said the organization has added store compliance check statistics to the other local data it tracks on substance abuse, including student surveys.
“All of our data collected last year and the previous year indicated that underage drinking is our biggest problem,” Banks said.
According to the Georgia Student Health Survey, 13 percent of eighth-graders in Hall County and Gainesville schools used alcohol within 30 days of taking the survey. The statistic was 16 percent for 10th-graders and 22 percent for 12th-graders.
The numbers have actually gone down for local 10th- and 12th-graders, which Banks attributes to enforcement and education efforts, including the Hall County Sheriff’s ADVANCE program.
Alcohol use by eighth-graders has increased over the past three years, however.
“Statistics show the middle school time is when students really begin experimenting, so that’s concerning,” Banks said.
Banks said that the coalition’s members have heard anecdotally that “the students know which stores generally sell (alcohol to underage people) and which don’t by word of mouth.”
“Anything we can do to curb vendors from selling to underage people would be good,” he said.
Banks said stores should also be recognized for not selling alcohol during sting operations.
Among those stores in the most recent round of law enforcement checks was QuikTrip, which Woodard said has a reputation of being “incredibly responsible.”
Mike Thornbrugh, a spokesman for Oklahoma-based QuikTrip, said the company teaches its associates the implications of illegal sales and keeps close tabs on them, both through surveillance video and “mystery shoppers” who visit each store monthly.
The store requires its employees to check IDs for anyone who appears to be 27 or younger, Thornbrugh said.
“People who are under the age of 21 pretty much know it’s going to be difficult for them to do what they want to do at QuikTrip,” Thornbrugh said.
Banks believes the solicitor’s new tactic could prevent repeat offenses by store clerks.
“The whole focus is getting the community to face the fact that there is a problem,” Banks said.