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For the week of Sept. 15, 1999 through Sept. 22, 1999

Criminal Justice Council ponders substance abuse problem


By KEVIN WISER
Express Staff Writer

Nearly half of Blaine County’s annual budget, set last week at just under $12 million dollars, goes toward costs related to substance abuse.

At least, that’s 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 abuse.

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 educators—seemed surprised nor disputed his analysis.

The council’s 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 considered.

"Many of the problems we see in the county’s criminal justice system are directly related to substance abuse," Harlig said. "It’s just staggering. We’re 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 meeting—the growing juvenile substance abuse problem in Blaine County.

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 extent."

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 children’s lives."

"When there’s no support in the home, kids don’t last long in school," said Barge Levy, director of Silver Creek Alternative School. "If kids are not going to school, it’s 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.

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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 don’t need to be in jail," Espedal said. "It’s 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 doesn’t help to lock kids up with substance abuse problems. It makes them bitter and when they are placed back into society without treatment they don’t have a positive change in behavior but a reinforcement of bad behavior."

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.

"We’re averaging a 70 percent completion rate for kids entering the program and a great reduction if not a complete stoppage in use," Boender said.

As the program enters its third year, Boender said, outcome surveys of kids completing the program show positive results across the board. "We haven’t 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 people’s 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."

 

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