Drunk drivers, drug users and others charged with misdemeanors in Montgomery County are routinely assigned to work in county-run liquor stores as part of a program in which offenders agree to perform "community service" work to avoid criminal records.

The practice, in which the first-time offenders have been ordered to spend up to 600 hours stocking shelves, bagging liquor and performing other chores in the 20 county-owned stores, has been criticized by legal professionals and groups working for tougher drunk driving laws.

"I see community service as something that provides some general benefit to the public," Barbara Mello, a staff attorney with the Maryland branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said when interviewed about the practice. "I'm not at all convinced a publicly owned liquor store does that. It would seem not to be consistent with the spirit of community service."

"I don't think that would be the appropriate place," said Karen Wright, a spokesman for the Washington Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. "I don't think that actually deals with the consequences of their offense."

Ann Seymour, a spokeswoman for the national chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), said, "Working in a liquor store doesn't seem like a smart thing to do."

Last year, 225 first-time offenders spent 2,400 hours of community service time working in the county liquor department, saving $15,000 in labor costs, according to county records.

The Montgomery County Alternative Community Service Program, which was established in 1977, was one of the first in the state to assign first-time offenders to community service tasks as a way to avoid a permanent criminal record.

Over the years, it has placed offenders with more than 200 nonprofit community agencies and with county government agencies from the public libraries to the liquor department, said Maury Ward, the program director.

The Montgomery Department of Liquor Control, the only wholesale and retail liquor monopoly in the nation owned and operated by a county government, is one of the largest users of community service program participants among county government agencies, according to Ward.

Since January, eight persons charged with drunk driving or driving under the influence of alcohol have been assigned through the program to work in the liquor department, according to county records.

Sixteen others charged with possession of drugs or other alcohol-related offenses were among the 139 offenders assigned to perform community service work in the liquor department this year, according to records.

Ward acknowledged that "there could be some problems with that," but he and county liquor department director Thomas W. Schmidt defended the practice.

"I can see the irony, but liquor itself isn't the problem. The problem is the combination of too much liquor and driving," said Schmidt. He said that until he was questioned about the practice yesterday he was not aware that drunk drivers were assigned to county liquor stores.

Five offenders were assigned to work every day this week stocking and preparing the department's new Germantown store for its opening next Tuesday. Ward declined to release the name of anyone assigned to the liquor department, and none of them could be reached for comment.

Individuals facing their first offense on misdemeanor charges in county District Court are normally referred to the community service program by the local prosecutor's office as part of a plea bargain arrangement, said Ward.

Ward's office determines the length of service and places about half of the offenders with nonprofit groups. The rest are assigned to county government agencies.

In all, 988 offenders have been processed through the program since the first of the year. Last year more than 2,000 adults, facing charges from auto theft to indecent exposure, went through the program, he said.