The attitudes of the teenagers in Leora Krygier's courtroom range from mortified to calm. But no matter how different they are, the Juvenile and Informal Traffic Court referee wants them to gain a better understanding of how tragic an auto accident can be.
In addition to fines, community service and license suspension, Krygier for the last six months has assigned an essay to teenagers who have an inclination to neglect the rules of the road. She has them write a response of at least 300 words to a short story about a 17-year-old boy killed last summer in a car wreck near Magic Mountain.
The short story, titled "The Road," was written by Jayce Crawford, a friend of Krygier from a Los Angeles-area amateur writers group.
"The Road" is a true story of how a mother's life was forever changed by the death of her son. The mother cradles photos of the boy, old drawings and a Mother's Day card he inscribed "I love you, Mom!"
"I've always believed in the power of the written word and stories," Krygier, 48, said at the Van Nuys courthouse. "Maybe ['The Road'] could reach somebody who was unreachable otherwise and give them a different perspective."
Krygier said she hopes that teenagers, by reading "The Road," will understand the grief that parents suffer when they lose a child, and that such a realization will deter them from driving recklessly again.
Although Krygier has no way to know if the essays result in safer driving, she said the responses have been thoughtful and sincere.
"The kids are eager to do it," she said. "I feel intervention is more effective than a fine. Sometimes a fine can be meaningless."
Karly Beze, who was cited for driving 80 mph on the freeway, said she has benefited from the essay assignment.
"It really made me think," the 18-year-old Burbank resident said. "I can be responsible for others dying."
Her mother, Pamela, said Crawford's story should serve as a wake-up call to teenagers.
"I think it gives [youths] one more chance to think about what they did and realize they're not infallible," she said.
Seventeen-year-old Jonathan Daniel of Tarzana said writing the essay made him think more about the results of careless driving after he was caught racing in North Hollywood.
"The mother in the story was reflecting on her son and his past achievements," he said. "If I were to die, it would affect my whole family."
Crawford describes San Francisquito Canyon Road, where the 17-year-old in the story was killed, as a winding route and uses it as a metaphor for the teenager's fatal journey and for the obstacles the mother now faces in life. Crawford said she wrote the story for the mother, a close friend.
The story's absence of optimism, Crawford said, is a reminder that families face almost insurmountable odds when trying to recover from such tragedies.
"If your child dies that way, there's no going back," Crawford said. "Life is never the same."
Using creative techniques and intervention to reach juveniles is nothing new. Krygier and many other referees and judges send teenagers to county morgues and hospital emergency rooms for the shock value. But Los Angeles County court officials know of no other essay program.
"[Teenagers] are risk-takers. They have poor judgment, so making them stop and think is one of our goals," said David Searcy, supervising referee for the county's Juvenile Court system.
Unlike a judge, who is elected, referees are appointed by the county's presiding judge.
Krygier, a lawyer who specialized in civil and juvenile law before becoming a referee eight years ago, was the first county referee to introduce a school liaison into the courtroom, Searcy said. The liaison determines if a teenager has special needs, such as counseling or testing. Instead of having to travel to a different location on another day , teenagers can visit the liaison directly after sentencing.
"She's innovative," Searcy said. "She has done a lot for us."
Krygier assigns 10 to 15 essays a week from her tiny 9- by 10-foot courtroom.
When she first read "The Road," she said, she was nearly moved to tears. She wondered if it would have the same effect on the people who need it the most.
A stack of essays sits on her desk. One reads: "After a long discussion with my parents, I feel it is my responsibility and in my power to prevent the fear, sorrow and emptiness parents feel after losing their child to a car accident.
"I have learned that driving is a privilege which should not be abused and taken for granted. And my life as well as someone else's life on the same road with me should not be put in danger by reckless driving.
"It is my choice to avoid ending up on the same winding road as this teenager did."