Criminal Justice Council ponders substance abuse problem
By KEVIN WISER
Express Staff Writer
Nearly half of Blaine Countys annual budget, set last week at
just under $12 million dollars, goes toward costs related to substance abuse.
At least, thats according to an analysis done by County
Commissioner Leonard Harlig, who believes that much of the $5,600,000 spent annually by
the county for law enforcement and indigent services is needed to combat drug and alcohol
Harlig made this bombshell claim before the Blaine County Criminal
Justice Council on Thursday. However, no one on the council-made up of judges,
police and probation officers, politicians and educatorsseemed surprised nor
disputed his analysis.
The councils goals are to prevent crime, find alternatives to
incarceration and rehabilitate youth.
Harlig told the council that to determine how wide spread the issue of
substance abuse is in Blaine County, the costs related to drug and alcohol abuse should be
"Many of the problems we see in the countys criminal justice
system are directly related to substance abuse," Harlig said. "Its just
staggering. Were not the paradise that everyone perceives us to be."
Yet, according to Harlig, losses calculated in dollars and cents are
not the only price the community pays for drug and alcohol addiction.
In a summary of costs related to substance abuse, Harlig wrote in his
analysis, "It does not include the emotional cost of domestic violence inflicted on
women and children by substance abusers nor the terrible example that adults are setting,
for their own children, by abusing drugs and alcohol.
"The funding analysis is admittedly a simplistic overview of a
major society problem. Some law enforcement and court-related expenses would be necessary
even in a perfect non-substance abuse world. However, even if the above total ($5,600,000)
was discounted by half, the cost would still be substantial.
"We should, and can, do better. Programs and facilities for the
youth and adults of our community are a better investment than incarceration,
hospitalization and alienation. Substance abuse and juvenile problems are costing our
community valuable financial and emotional resources."
Council members representing all facets of the criminal justice system
had one common concern at the meetingthe growing juvenile substance abuse problem in
In discussing the successes and failures in addressing that concern,
the council identified three factors critical in dealing with juvenile substance abuse:
early intervention; the diversion of youth with substance abuse problems away from
detention and into prevention and treatment programs; and parental involvement.
Juvenile Magistrate Judge John Varin, a council member who attended the
meeting, has served on the bench for many years.
"An impression I have is that some cases are so far out of control
that the parents are not even a factor," Varin said. "Blaine County seems to
have a high incident of this sort of situation, more than other areas to some
Varin said parents in this community are often out of touch with their
kids, not involved enough in their lives and therefore not aware of their problems.
"Early intervention is critical," Varin said. "Parents
need to get involved. National studies show a huge difference and positive impact on
juvenile substance abuse when parents get involved in their childrens lives."
"When theres no support in the home, kids dont last
long in school," said Barge Levy, director of Silver Creek Alternative School.
"If kids are not going to school, its an indicator of future problems."
Levy said he supports some sort of mentoring program when parental
guidance is lacking as a way to provide early intervention.
The council discussed local programs aimed at addressing the
juvenile substance abuse problem.
According to chief probation officer Teresa Espedal, the juvenile
diversion program diverts young people away from detention and into programs designed to
deal with their substance abuse problems.
"Kids dont need to be in jail," Espedal said.
"Its not beneficial to them at all."
Harlig said the diversion program is working and that the county needs
to keep it going.
"When kids get into the system we need to divert them away from
detention and put them into programs to help get them back on the right track," he
said. "In most cases it doesnt help to lock kids up with substance abuse
problems. It makes them bitter and when they are placed back into society without
treatment they dont have a positive change in behavior but a reinforcement of bad
Project Respect is a local juvenile substance abuse intervention and
treatment program. Its director, Kevin Boender, said the program is working and that
getting parents involved in the process is a critical component to success.
"Were averaging a 70 percent completion rate for kids
entering the program and a great reduction if not a complete stoppage in use,"
As the program enters its third year, Boender said, outcome surveys of
kids completing the program show positive results across the board. "We havent
had any cases to date where kids and their parents have reported that the substance abuse
problem has become worse following treatment."
Boender said the punishment of juvenile substance abuse offenders
without rehabilitation is not a permanent solution and that establishing trust is
necessary in having a positive impact on young peoples lives.
"In detention you have that automatic wall that comes between kids
and the system," Boender said. "In Project Respect you have a recovered
addict/alcoholic who knows what the kids are going through and can relate to their
substance abuse problems. In this program we try to create an allied relationship rather
than an adversarial one and provide trust between counselor and kids."