SHERIDAN — On days when ex-offenders graduate from drug court or a juvenile probation program administered by the Sheridan County Justice Office, Neal Madson believes the entire community has reason to celebrate.
The administrator of the office which works to help criminal offenders make amends for their actions and ultimately reenter the workforce, Madson said the local economy stands to benefit from taking a nuanced approach to criminal justice.
“We’re moving them back toward being productive rather than sitting in jail,” he said of the programs offered by his office.
While it’s sometimes a tough view to sell, Madson said more and more people are beginning to understand that matters of criminal justice — particularly those related to issues of substance abuse — stand to affect more than just the criminal and the victim.
According to a recent report commissioned by the public health division of the Wyoming Department of Health and authored by the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center, the abuse of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs represents a set of far-reaching costs for taxpayers and private enterprise throughout the state.
While public health proponents are currently working to get the word out among legislators and local stakeholders, justice system representatives like Madson are struggling to do more with less in light of decreased support from local government.
In the face of potential cuts to probation, diversion and drug court programs, he said he worries that the state economy and the communities it represents stand to suffer over the long term.
The cost of substance abuse
While necessary differences in methodological approaches and a potential for overlap prohibited the study’s planners from estimating the total combined costs of substance abuse in Wyoming, authors managed to isolate several substances and outline their costs to the state.
Between health care costs, productivity losses, crime costs and various other expenses, alcohol represented a total cost of about $843 million in 2010.
Meanwhile, tobacco use cost the economy about $690 million and drug abuse cost about $391 million.
Associate research scientist Nanette Nelson said that in an effort to accurately estimate total costs, authors of the report took a conservative approach toward tallying the totals.
Since the report was published, proponents of increased funding for public health initiatives have approached state legislators in the hopes of winning them over.
While he hasn’t yet had an opportunity to read the report in full, Sen. Charles Scott, R–Casper, said government can play a role in helping shift the public dialogue toward healthy alternatives to substance abuse.
As the chairman of the Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, Scott said it’s important to frame issues of substance abuse as an economic concern for the state.
“When somebody has a real severe alcohol problem, it may well impoverish them by keeping them from being able to hold down a job,” he said. “It’s not that the government is absent in its efforts, it’s always on the margin of ‘Should you be doing a little more?’”
Thom Gabrukiewicz, community prevention specialist with the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention of Sheridan County, said the report underscores the importance of fostering a dialogue on issues of substance abuse in Wyoming.
“If we can stop the behaviors, change people’s social norms about these things, then on the back side we’re not having to pay for insurance and all those other very costly things,” he said.
Both Scott and Gabrukiewicz said that more so than almost anything else, education and public awareness are key in ensuring economic vitality for the state.
Justice Office effects
At the Sheridan County Justice Office, Neal Madson said conversations about potential cuts are already underway among members of his administrative team.
While funding from the county has remained steady in recent years, city funding for programs aimed at rehabilitating offenders and allowing them to reenter the workforce has fallen substantially.
Down from a total of about $170,000 per year during previous cycles of Option One-Cent Sales Tax funding, the city’s contribution has fallen to about $115,000.
While he said he understands the need to cut spending given the current economic climate, Madson worries that a lack of investment in young people and others struggling with problems stemming from substance abuse will ultimately come with a price.
“You end up paying for them anyway,” he said, in reference to jail costs.
At any given time, Madson estimates his office is involved with about 100 cases. He added that drug and alcohol abuse play a major role in the stories of a large percentage of those offenders.
While it costs almost $200 per day to detain a juvenile at a detention center in Casper, probation programs cost taxpayers only about $5 per day on average.
Drug court costs represent similar savings for taxpayers.
In the face of budget cuts, however, those programs are in jeopardy. As a result, Madson has encouraged city officials to reconsider their funding contributions, but whether that amounts to any changes in the future remains a largely unanswered question.
“As soon as things start getting tight budget-wise, these kinds of programs are the first to get cut,” he said. “I try to emphasize that when they’re investing in the kinds of programs we have, it’s economic development.”