Downey Panel OKs Jail Alternative for Some Convicted Drunk Drivers

Times Staff Writer

The City Council has adopted a program that will allow drunk drivers to work off jail sentences by doing menial chores such as scrubbing police cars or sweeping floors at the Civic Center.

The council Tuesday night approved the program by a 4-0 vote after it was proposed by Downey Municipal Court Judge Reynaldo Chaparro and the Southeast Bar Assn. and endorsed by City Manager Robert (Bud) Ovrom and Police Chief Bill Martin. If accepted for the program, drunk drivers would perform 10 hours of work for every 24 hours they were sentenced to jail.

Programs that allow persons to work off jail sentences by doing menial work, called community work or "trusty" programs for prisoners deemed trustworthy, have been sponsored by several cities, including Whittier and Torrance.

While programs in those two cities were used for persons convicted of minor crimes, including drunk driving, the Downey program is unusual because it was created mainly for drunk drivers sentenced to jail under toughened state laws, officials said. Also, while the Torrance and Whittier programs had inmates working during days and spending their nights in jail, Downey inmates will work days and go home nights, officials said. (The Whittier program, which had existed for more than 10 years, was canceled in 1984 when an inmate stole a police car and another escaped, officials said.)

Recommendation Needed

To qualify for the Downey program, residents convicted of drunk driving must be recommended by a Downey Municipal Court judge and be approved by the Police Department. The drunk drivers also have to pay an admission fee of $25, plus $75 for each day sentenced to jail to cover administrative costs.

City officials said the program will allow residents with otherwise clean records to stay out of the county jails and will provide the city with free labor. But the president of the Los Angles chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers Inc. said the program may be a mistake.

"I don't think we're helping these offenders at all by letting them off the hook," said Barbara Bloomberg, MADD president, whose 16-year-old son was killed by a drunk driver in a 1980 accident on the San Diego Freeway.

"We're talking about a serious crime that kills 26,000 persons a year. I believe a harsher penalty would give them a more serious jolt," she said.

Bloomberg said surveys show people arrested for drunk driving usually have driven under the influence before--as many as 2,000 times--and not been caught. She said the program is justified only for first-time offenders whose tests showed low blood-alcohol levels when arrested.

State law now calls for a maximum fine of $1,000 for drunk driving, with first offenders facing either three years' probation or 48 hours in jail. Repeat offenders can have their licenses suspended and be sentenced to a prison term of 10 days to a year.

Program Defended

Martin defended the program, saying it will benefit both drunk drivers and the community.

"It's an opportunity for the local citizens who get themselves in trouble to pay their penance by doing work that the city needs done," Martin said.

"We don't intend for it to be some cushy way to work off your time. They (inmates) will perform work or they'll be dealt with severely," Martin said, adding that persons who were lazy or uncooperative probably would be dropped from the program and sentenced to jail.

Martin also said the program will have a "selective" enrollment, which he said will be used by no more than 100 persons per year.

Last year, 2,150 persons were convicted for drunk driving in Downey, said Robert Hunt, administrator for the Downey Municipal Court.

The Downey program is primarily for drunk drivers with no previous drunk driving convictions. However, persons convicted of shoplifting, intoxication, disorderly conduct and repeated traffic offenses also will be eligible, Martin said.

Judge Chaparro said he will recommend some second-time drunk driving offenders for the Downey program, but he primarily will select "first-timers that are really not going to be involved in alcohol again."

'Almost Crying'

"As they stand before me, they're almost crying," the judge said. "It's really a shame to put them in the county jail the first time."

Chaparro said he favored giving drunk drivers "one chance to rehabilitate themselves, and if they don't take it, the next time they're here they're going to jail for a long time."

Martin said he too prefers first offenders for the program but said most first offenders are put on probation. The program will accept nonviolent persons with no criminal records who want to stay out of the county jails, which have "a bad reputation," the chief said.

The chief said the program was suggested to him by Judge Chaparro, after a 56-year-old man with a heart condition was convicted of drunk driving. The person, who the chief declined to identify, is a longtime city resident who had a clean record except for an arrest for drunk driving as a youth.

Martin said the Southeast Bar Assn. also has suggested a community work program. Robert Drees, president of the Southeast Bar Assn., could not be reached for comment. Persons enrolled in the program will work up to 10 hours a day, performing chores such as washing windows, mowing lawns, moving furniture and picking up litter, with a half-hour for lunch and two 15-minute coffee breaks, officials said.

Savings Cited

The program was approved late Tuesday with no discussion on a motion by Councilman Robert Davila. In an interview, Davila, a Los Angeles police officer, said the program was "great" because "it would save taxpayers money in the long run."

In Torrance, Capt. Bruce Randall said the city has between two to five trusties a day, including drunk drivers who are repeat offenders serving sentences of no less than 30 days. Persons enrolled in the program share a dormitory-style room with four bunk beds that include a color television and shower facilities, Randall said.

In Whittier, the city had a community work program for more than a decade that handled less than a dozen persons per year, one or two of whom were drunk drivers, said Chief James Bale.

The program was canceled last year after one man stole a police car and another man escaped, said Sgt. Donald Halverson. Halverson said the city, which is self-insured, decided that the program was too risky to continue sponsoring.

In Downey, if a person enrolled on the program is injured on the job, there is a "legal question" whether the injury would be covered by the city's workers' compensation policy and whether the city would be liable to personal injury lawsuits, Martin said. The question is being researched by city officials, Martin said.

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