At one in four, the odds are good.

If you're underage and want to buy alcohol illegally, just try four local mini-marts, liquor stores or markets and you'll likely find at least one clerk who won't ask questions when you shove that 12-pack over the counter.

That's the sobering conclusion reached from the results of state sting operation conducted in Tuolumne County earlier this month. In it, nine of 35 businesses approached sold liquor to underage decoys working with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

The decoys used real California IDs, which for teens include a red stripe denoting the date on which holders will turn 21. Clerks checking them need not do math.

Not only that, but no fake IDs were used and, according to the ABC, and the recruited decoys looked even younger than their actual sub-21 ages.

It should have been extremely easy for the clerks involved to spot the illegal buyers. In fact those manning the counters at 26 of the businesses did their jobs right and denied the teens' attempts to purchase alcohol.

Still, the message to underage buyers seems clear: If you are persistent, you will find a Tuolumne County store that will sell you liquor. And you don't even need to look old or have a convincing fake ID to pull it off.

This is discouraging news for more than one reason.

? First, a similar sting conducted nearly a year ago netted only one violator among 24 Sonora businesses approached by ABC decoys. The results were a great improvement over a 2003 operation in which half of 20 stores approached sold liquor to underage buyers.

This gave rise to cautious optimism, but unfortunately it was short-lived.

ABC spokesman John Carr called last month's results "discouraging." "Obviously nine is too high," he said. "It's higher than we want to see."

It also bears out what Lt. Dan Bressler said was a frequent complaint to the Sheriff's Office: "That kids in this town can get alcohol whenever they want it."

? Second, several of the businesses netted in ABC stings are repeat violators: The Sonora Express Mart, on Pesce Way north of Sonora, has been netted in three stings since 2003. The Sonora Mini-Mart, the Sonora Mini-Stop and the Fuel Depot, all in the Sonora area, have each been cited in one previous sting.

Clerks who sell alcohol to minors by law can face fines of more than $3,000 and at least 24 hours of community service. Whether clerks are aware of these dire consequences, whether they are properly trained by owners and whether judges indeed throw the book at violators, however, are good questions.

Stores themselves can receive anything from a warning letter to a fine to a license suspension or loss. But, given the number of repeat violators, penalties imposed may not be stiff enough.

The stings, generally conducted every six months or so, may not come often enough.

Given the state's budget crunch, the ABC probably has no plans to step up its enforcement operations. But doing so could save money in the long run.

That's because alcohol and crime, as any police officer will tell you, are inextricably connected. Scores of studies on have been done on the subject, and the link between crime particularly violent crime and liquor has been firmly established.

Those who begin drinking young are also more likely to get in trouble young, and in some cases become long-term and very expensive burdens on our criminal justice system. So wouldn't keeping alcohol out of their hands in the first place be a cheaper, more effective way to go?

But the ABC can't alone solve this pervasive problem. Parents, in particular, and, the community in general, must do their parts.

It's everyone's responsibility to keep alcohol from underage buyers.