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The Region | TIMES HOLIDAY CAMPAIGN

First-Time Offenders in Riverside County Given a Second Chance

November 26, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

After Percy Moore graduated from high school, the 19-year-old had no plans for his future beyond drinking and clubbing with his friends on the weekends.

But a rainy night, a car crash and a drunk-driving arrest in March led to a turning point in the young man's life. A judge ordered the Moreno Valley teen to enter TEMPO, a program for first-time teen offenders that offers an alternative to juvenile hall.

Now, Moore is sober, plans to start classes at Riverside Community College in January and wants to become an X-ray technician.

"It sure did help turn my life around," Moore said. "It was, like, time out. I had to take a break from ripping and running around and stuff."

About 300 first-time offenders ages 13 to 19 from throughout Riverside County are sent to TEMPO, a program that began in 1997.

In the 20-hour program, the teens visit a hospital emergency room, jail and morgue, said Joy Zralka, senior coordinator of TEMPO. They learn about the health effects of alcohol abuse and hear from victims whose lives were forever changed by drunk drivers.

"We try to give the teens the opportunity to realize what the effects of doing drugs and alcohol are for themselves, their community and their family," Zralka said. "They could end up in a car accident, killing themselves, or hurting themselves or others. We hope to avoid all that by exposing them early enough, before they get too wrapped up in the legal system or too far gone."

The program had only a 5% recidivism rate for the 2002 class, the most recent year for which figures are available, TEMPO officials said.

Mary Salvador, chief executive of the Volunteer Center of Riverside County, said the program costs $50,000 annually. Teens sentenced to the program typically pay $150. But the center offers scholarships to youths from low-income families.

"Sometimes that [fee] is a real burden to families," she said. "We don't want to burden the families to where they can't go through this program and the child ends up going to juvenile hall."

The program and the scholarships are supported by a grant from the Los Angeles Times Holiday Campaign. This year, TEMPO received $15,000 from the campaign, which raises money for nonprofit organizations in Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Moore would not have been able to attend without a scholarship. He said the experience changed his life, especially seeing the victims of drunk drivers, including a mother in the emergency room whose arm was severed and a young victim in a presentation by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The program steered him away from drinking and driving, he said, "especially when I saw a MADD presentation where I saw a girl in a wheelchair and thought about how someone in my family could be hit by a drunk driver. It made me feel real guilty, even though I didn't hurt anyone," he said. "It hit me in the face. It brought reality up, really."

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