In the first program of its kind in Los Angeles County, a group of judges in Van Nuys Municipal Court are sentencing people convicted of misdemeanor sex crimes to attend AIDS-prevention classes as a condition of probation.
The program--which will soon be expanded into other courts under a new state law--is an attempt to teach safe sex measures to people with a high risk of contracting AIDS.
Court officials said they have no way of knowing whether the Van Nuys experiment has changed participants' behavior, but they have received enough positive feedback to make them believe it may save lives.
"We're just trying to do our part to help stop the spread of AIDS," said Deputy City Atty. David S. Kestenbaum, one of several people who pushed for the program. "If it stops even a small percentage of people from getting AIDS, it's going to help us all."
Many AIDS experts applaud the effort, but others say the program does not go far enough because it fails to target intravenous drug users, who are also at high risk of catching acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Covered by State Law
That group will be covered as well, however, by the state law signed by Gov. George Deukmejian last month requiring Municipal Courts throughout the state to order AIDS education courses for certain defendants. Under the law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, county health departments will arrange the classes for intravenous drug users, prostitutes and prostitutes' clients who are sentenced to probation instead of jail.
On a recent day, a two-hour AIDS-prevention course in North Hollywood drew seven slightly embarrassed-looking men to a small room at the Valley Community Clinic. Surrounded by posters of the male and female reproductive systems, the men fidgeted as they prepared to sit through a lecture.
"I don't know where you are at sexually speaking, but I would challenge all of you to examine your sexual practices to see if they're safe in terms of AIDS," said instructor Andrea Welsing, before matter-of-factly launching into a discussion of condoms, spermicides and sex acts.
Welsing, who sometimes uses a banana to demonstrate how to use a condom, provided graphic descriptions of safe sex practices in a casual manner and showed the class a videotape in which U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop answers common questions about AIDS.
Variety of Backgrounds
The pupils included a married man in his 40s and single men in their 20s and 30s, with occupations ranging from auto mechanic to medical equipment company manager. The majority had been arrested for lewd conduct after soliciting sex acts from male undercover officers at San Fernando Valley adult bookstores.
Most sat quietly when Welsing, who teaches the $25 course twice a month, paused for questions. One man, however, asked whether the information on the videotape was up-to-date.
Some of the men thanked her on the way out.
"I really feel it's good for me to learn. AIDS is constantly on my mind," said a well-dressed class member, who called his bisexuality "the darkest secret of my life."
He came away convinced, however, that he already was practicing safe sex, but added, "This arrest could have been a warning or a helpful blessing knowing I should step back and think about what I'm doing."
The Van Nuys classes sprang from a 1987 proposal by Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs for a pilot program to require AIDS education for people convicted of prostitution, solicitation, lewd conduct, possession of a controlled substance, being under the influence of an opiate or PCP and illegal possession of a syringe. A similar experiment was under way elsewhere in the state--a judge in Butte County began requiring AIDS classes a year earlier and the idea was later picked up in Riverside County.
Proposal Wins Approval
The Los Angeles City Council approved Wachs' proposal, but it failed to get funding from the county, which operates the courts, Deputy City Atty. David Schulman said.
Reluctant to let the plan die, Kestenbaum and Municipal Court Commissioner Patricia Gorner Schwartz decided to institute a scaled-down version in Van Nuys Municipal Court about a year ago.
Since the start, about one to three defendants per week, most of them first offenders, have been ordered to take the AIDS classes in addition to paying fines as a requirement of their probation, officials said.
The offenders can choose from one of four court-approved courses or go to their private doctors for AIDS counseling to fulfill the probation requirement.
Schwartz said she and the other organizers did not want the requirement to seem like punishment. "The idea is not to humiliate or embarrass anybody but to give them life-saving information," she said.
Several hundred people have gone through the program, 183 of them at the Valley Community Clinic, mostly men, according to Welsing. Officials from three other Los Angeles programs that accept AIDS education referrals said they have not kept count of students sent by the court.
The cost to the county is negligible because defendants pay the course fees, Kestenbaum said. If a person fails to take the AIDS class, the judge can issue an arrest warrant and send him to jail. But the court has had to issue such warrants for fewer than 5% of defendants, a surprisingly low rate, Kestenbaum said.
Organizers Tell Doubts
Although the organizers talk optimistically about the AIDS prevention classes, they also admit to doubts about whether they are effectively reaching their students. Participants cannot be required to take tests for the AIDS virus and there is no way to check on their private lives after they leave the classroom.
And while some students have remarked that they plan to use condoms, become monogamous or get an AIDS test, others insist it's only a homosexual disease or say they still are not convinced they are at risk, Welsing said.
Schwartz said she wonders whether it has any effect. But, she added: "Just when I think this is sort of hopeless and not worth doing, I see someone who is being sentenced for a homosexual act and I see a wedding ring on their finger and, I think, it may be saving a life."