D.A. to Give Bad-Check Writers a Choice : Law enforcement: A program starting Saturday will allow some offenders to avoid possible criminal prosecution by paying up and attending classes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The district attorney's office is taking aim at people who bounce checks in Orange County with a new program designed to make them pay up and do time--in a classroom.

Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said Tuesday that he hopes to return more than $750,000 in lost sales to local merchants during the course of the next year as part of the Bad Check Prosecution Program, scheduled to start Saturday.

"If people think they are immune to the problem, ask them if they eat," Capizzi said, explaining that grocers have reported some of the largest losses and have no choice but to pass on increased costs to consumers. Capizzi said local police estimate that 2,000 checks bounce each month in Orange County.

Under the program, which has been started in 11 other California counties, authorities give offenders a chance to avoid possible criminal charges. Offenders must agree to pay the merchant the amount owed, pay a $25 fee to the county and attend an eight-hour counseling class for an additional $50, which will include instruction in such things as behavior modification.

Capizzi said a private company, American Counseling Services, has been contracted to operate the classes at locations throughout the county. The company will be paid with the instruction fees.

Offenders who have written bad checks that total more than $750 or one check in the amount of $500 or more will not be accepted into the program and will face criminal sanctions, Capizzi said.

The district attorney said the $25 fees paid by offenders is expected to bring in $145,000 in the first year, rising to $246,000 in the third year, which will cover the cost of the program.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Bruce Patterson, who will be in charge of the program, said he expects to process about 43,000 bad checks during the first year.

"We felt there was a need and that merchants were not getting any assistance from the criminal justice system," Patterson said.

Patricia Saldivar, co-owner of Teresa's Jewelers in Santa Ana, knows the feeling of getting a bad check. During the past couple of years, Saldivar said, she has lost about $1,000 because of bounced checks, a substantial amount for her small neighborhood business.

She said one offender is still making payments on a recent $568 check she will not soon forget. Saldivar said the man presented the check to be cashed, which was made payable to a woman he described as his wife. She said the clerk cashed it and later found the man's story to be a complete fabrication.

"The problem has gotten worse in the past two or three years," Saldivar said. "When you go into business, you start out believing everybody. But you learn that you got to watch your back."

Jake Jacobson, a forgery investigator with the Santa Ana police, said his department handles up to 130 bad checks each month.

"It's becoming a big problem here," Jacobson said. "People are actually making a living off this. They open an account with $100 and get a whole box of checks. It's like getting a credit card with the means of obtaining the money, without having the money."

Capizzi said the program also is expected to lighten the load of criminal cases in his office.

"It is a program where everybody wins," the district attorney said. "One hundred percent of the restitution goes back to the victims, and it involves no cost to the taxpayers."

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