Program for Young Drunk Drivers Draws Few Offenders : Sentencing: The plan, which involves visits to emergency rooms and morgues, could handle 300 people, but only 82 completed it. Scheduling is one problem.


More than a year after Los Angeles County supervisors endorsed expansion of a program to shock-treat youthful drunk drivers by showing them the mangled bodies of accident victims in emergency rooms and morgues, comparatively few offenders have actually gotten the treatment.

From late April through December, county coroner's officials said, only 82 people completed the program during a period when they could have handled 300 or more. And 58 of the 82 came from Long Beach Municipal Court, which was already conducting the pilot program that set off a campaign for an expanded version.

"I guess we were over-optimistic. We thought it would expand much faster. I'm puzzled given all the effort we've put into it," said Gary Siglar, the coroner's official responsible for the county's Youthful Drunk Driver Visitation Program.

Officials from various agencies involved in the program blamed a variety of factors, including that judges have yet to widely use it, that scheduling is difficult because the coroner sessions are held only twice a month, and that various fees and transportation problems have added complications.

The county program, and those like it elsewhere, have drawn positive reviews from court and hospital personnel, who say the shock of seeing severely injured or dead accident victims can leave a lasting impression on young drunk drivers.

But what the program has not drawn thus far is many participants.

One example is the Antelope Valley, the first area targeted for expansion under the plan endorsed by the County Board of Supervisors in September, 1990. Under the program, first-time drunk drivers under 22 are supposed to stay several hours at the morgue, spend a shift at a local hospital and write an essay.

However, coroner's officials said they had no record of anyone referred by the Antelope Municipal Court having completed the program. Court and hospital officials said they thought there had been several referred, but only a tiny share of the area's hundreds of youthful drunk driving cases.

That news came as a surprise to the local businessmen who contributed a total of about $2,500 to the coroner's office to help subsidize the program for the Antelope Valley, and to aides to county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area and brought the issue to the board more than a year ago.

"From what I understood, they had already started taking kids down there," said Dale Ware, general manager of KUTY, an Antelope Valley country music radio station that coordinated the fund-raising drive. "I don't know" what happened after that, he said. "I lost track of it."

"I wasn't aware of that," said Lori Howard, Antonovich's aide for legal affairs. "I wonder why the judges haven't sent more cases."

Judge Richard E. Spann, the presiding judge of Antelope Municipal Court in Lancaster, said his judges support the program. Spann acknowledged handling most of the area's misdemeanor drunk driving cases, but said he thought he had referred only about three cases to the program. He said he didn't have many cases in which the program was appropriate and couldn't say its use will increase.

The municipal courts in Van Nuys, Valencia, Glendale and San Fernando for now do not even offer the coroner's program to young offenders, said Sandy Doerschlag, executive director of the Volunteer Center of the San Fernando Valley, a nonprofit group that coordinates community involvement services mandated by the courts.

The morgue and hospital visits program was authorized by the state Legislature in 1987, aimed primarily at youthful first-time drunk driving offenders. Judges can reduce fines or the length of jail sentences or driver's license suspensions for offenders who volunteer to participate.

The idea began with a judge in Sacramento about five years ago and spread. The Orange County coroner has had hundreds of participants view autopsies since 1988. Judges in the Long Beach Municipal Court persuaded the Los Angeles coroner to begin a milder pilot program--participants are not present for the entire autopsy--in August, 1989.

But coroner's officials said only a handful of other municipal courts in Los Angeles County have participated this year, even after all were invited. In addition to Long Beach, two other courts had 10 defendants each complete the course, coroner's officials said. The remaining four who completed the program came from two or three other courts, they said.

Another problem is that almost half of the people assigned by courts apparently are not actually attending the required sessions, coroner's officials said. The 82 people to complete the program during the past eight months were among about 160 who were assigned, they said.

What happens next to those who fail to attend depends on individual judges.

Bill Proffitt, an investigator who conducts the sessions at the morgue east of downtown Los Angeles, said they include a 30-minute slide show depicting alcohol-related casualties, a walk through an area where autopsies are being conducted and into the vault where bodies are kept in the open and a 45-minute movie on drunk driving.

Proffitt said he is convinced that the program leaves a lasting mark. So is Vickie Helmandollar, director of the emergency room at Antelope Valley Hospital Medical Center in Lancaster, which displayed injured accident victims to four drunk drivers this spring but hasn't seen any offenders in months. "It's a real eye-opener for them," she said.

Long Beach Municipal Court Judge Bradford L. Andrews, another strong backer of the program, said judges elsewhere may not be offering it to young offenders or explaining the potential benefits. Also, Andrews said, offenders often have had a hard time fitting the twice-monthly presentations at the coroner's office into their schedules.

And, other officials said getting to the downtown coroner's office can be a problem, especially for people with suspended driver's licenses who must travel long distances, such as from the Antelope Valley. Also, the coroner's office has been asking participants to pay $35, and the Lancaster hospital has been asking for a $30 fee, in addition to participants' other fines.

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