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1st-Time Drunk Driving Offenders Given Firsthand Look at Victims

Times Staff Writer

The penmanship was sometimes ragged and the spelling off the mark, but the essays were from the heart:

From a young man named Richard: “After going to the trauma center, I changed my way of living a little. I’ve stopped going to parties and driving with beers in my car.”

From a 20-year-old named John: “I’m lucky. I could have been paralyzed or killed or worse. . . . I learned that human life is fragile, and it’s not worth it to take more risks than necessary.”

The essays fill a manila folder that Floyd H. Schenk, presiding judge of West Orange County Municipal Court, keeps on his desk.

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Since last July, Schenk and several of his colleagues have sentenced 50 first-time drunk driving offenders, ages 18 to 21, to tour the county morgue, spend 10 hours at a local trauma center and write a 1,000-word account of the experience.

In shock value alone, the program may be a stronger deterrent to drunk driving than jail time, Schenk said.

“To see someone who is seriously injured while the tears are flowing and the blood is squirting is more powerful than jail,” the white-haired, 64-year-old jurist said.

And so far it appears to be working. Of the young men and women who have served time at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital’s trauma center and the county morgue, only one has been arrested a second time for drunk driving. (The sentence does not substitute, however, for other penalties typically imposed for a first-time drunk-driving conviction. Standard penalties also include three years’ probation, driving restrictions and at least a $740 fine.)

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The idea for this unusual program began with a Sacramento jurist, Municipal Court Judge Jeffrey L. Gunther, who has been sentencing youthful offenders to visit the county coroner’s office and local emergency rooms for three years.

Schenk was the first Orange County judge to try it. But about two weeks after Schenk’s program began, a state law based on Gunther’s program took effect, authorizing all state judges to send young drunk drivers to emergency rooms, coroner’s offices and alcohol treatment programs as part of their probation.

Other Orange County judges have begun their own innovative sentencing efforts aimed at making drunk drivers understand the seriousness of their crime. For the last two years, some judges in Central Municipal Court in Santa Ana have ordered first-time offenders to change bedpans and sit with accident victims at Western Neuro-Care, a center for brain-damaged patients in Tustin.

And, since last August, Central Municipal Court judges have been sending convicted drunk drivers of all ages to a “Victims Panel” arranged by the Orange County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

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At the monthly meeting, held in City Council chambers in Orange, 60 to 100 offenders listen as four or five victims--people injured by a drunk driver or whose relatives were killed--tearfully relate how the incident changed their lives.

Starting this month, judges in Newport Beach’s Harbor Municipal Court will also be encouraged to send their convicted drunk drivers to the “Victims’ Panel,” that court’s presiding judge, Russell A. Bostrom, said.

“There’s a kind of lackadaisical attitude” by many first-time offenders--that their offense wasn’t serious, said Bostrom, who believes that “compelling” testimony by the Victims’ Panel can change that. A person who is ordinarily not an articulate speaker becomes “grandiloquent” when talking of the death of a loved one, said Bostrom, who attended MADD’s April meeting.

At Fountain Valley hospital where Schenk’s program began, trauma surgeons and emergency room nurses initially had reservations about working with young drunk driving offenders. “The emergency department staff are not fond of people who drink and drive,” noted Joan Boughey, associate director of nursing.

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But as hospital staffers watched the young people sit somberly beside the bed of a coma patient or react with horror as severely injured accident victims were stitched together, they have decided the program is working, Boughey said.

Young offenders in the West Orange County court program also must spend two hours at the morgue where senior deputy coroner Richard Rodriguez presents a grisly slide show of fatal accidents, walks them through a refrigerator full of cadavers and asks that they watch an autopsy.

“By the end of the day, they know more about the facts of driving and drinking--how easy it is to die,” Rodriguez said.


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