With a pint of bourbon and a night of wild partying under his belt, the young man stumbled into an all-night Seven Eleven in Rockville.

"It was 4:30 in the morning, and I never did figure out how I got there," recalled the 25-year-old architectural student. "The next thing I know the police are in there handcuffing me because I was trying to shoplife four pairs of sunglasses.

"Nothing like this had ever happened to me before; I'd never been in any kind of trouble with law," he continued quietly. "In the two months until my trial I didn't know what to expect, and I wasn't sure what was going to happen about returning to school."

But when the student appeared in court he received a welcome surprise. Instead of a jail sentence, a criminal record, a fine or probation, he was offered a chance to volunteer for the Montgomery County Alternative Community Services (ACS) program.

Through ACS, eligible offenders can erase their arrest record through volunteer work with a public or nonprofit private agency. His name is being withheld because there will not be a permanent record of his arrest.

With the student's architectural skills in mind, an ACS job liason specialist placed him as an engineering aide with the county facilities management office. His "sentence" was a contract for 48 hours of volunteer work, inspecting county buildings.

His supervisors were so pleased with his work that they offered the young man a summer job. This fall, he will return to school with job experience and favorable recommendations - and without a criminal record.

He is one of the 760 first offenders who has participated in the 10-month-old ACS program.

ACS was launched last September to provide persons who have committed minor offenses with a way to atone for crimes and to reduce the workload and the expense of the criminal justice agencies.

Participants have ranged from a 73-year-old grandmother to a GS-15 federal employe to a thrid-year law student ready to take the bar. ACS staff members check court dockets to find persons they believe might be interested in and eligible for the program.

To be eligible, an offender must be approved by the state's attorney and the ACS staff and must volunteer for the program.

Shoplifters account for more than a third of ACS clients. Other minor offenses and misdemeanors eligible for ACS have included simple assault, trespassing, vandalism and disorderly conduct, telephone misuse and purchasing alcohol for a minor. One person was charged with unauthorized use of a horse.

Both the offender and the community benefit from ACS, according to program co-ordinator Maurice Ward.

"The court dockets are already crowded with these kinds of cases, so ACS saves court time," Ward said. "Rather than put a minor offender through the whole criminal justice system, ACS lets the person make social restitution by contributing service to the community.

"We're not turning our back - we're imposing a penalty and at the same time providing much needed volunteer services to more than 50 volunteer agencies. For example, a lot of the snow fence in Montogomery County was put up through ACS."

About two thirds of ACS clients are adults. Since the program began adults have contributed 12,200 hours of community service and juveniles have contributed 5,014 hours.

Public or nonprofit organizations that have been served include the American Kidney Foundation, which honored ACS for its help, and the Brookside Botanical Gardens, which estimates ACS work has saved it more than $1,000 in manpower expenses.

Whenever possible, ACS specialists try to match an individual's skills with volunteer work.

"For example, a doctor arrested for assault was assigned to work on a program studying the effects of smoking, and a person who was an accomplished senior lifesaver taught swimming," Ward noted. "Our juveniles are supervised and work in groups. They might colate mail or clean debris from hiking and biking trails."

Most service contracts specify from 24 to 50 hours of volunteer work. When the service has been satisfactorily completed, the offender can apply to have his or her record erased.

Recidivism is the acid test of most criminal justice programs, Ward admitted. He said that ACS has not yet done a follow-up study, but he believes that few ACS participants have had additional problems.

"ACS participants don't seem to be coming back into the system," he said. "It's been almost a year, and we're pleased with our success so far."