Abele Blasts State on Juvenile Prisons

State wants 21% hike in fees and more inmates at failing prisons.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Apr 27th, 2017 12:01 pm
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Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Gov. Scott Walker‘s proposal for a 21 percent increase in the amount charged to counties for housing youth in the state’s two scandal-plagued juvenile prisons “is moving in exactly the wrong direction,” County Executive Chris Abele said Wednesday.

Walker’s budget proposes raising the fee from the current rate of $292 per child per day to $344 on July 1 of this year and to $352 on July 1, 2018. That would increase the annual cost of holding a child at Lincoln Hills School for Boys or Copper Lake School for Girls from $106,580 now to $128,480 in the second year of the budget.

Chris Abele

Chris Abele

“Honestly, you don’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes to figure out at least part of the motivation is the economy up in Wausau, because it sure as hell isn’t helping Milwaukee,” he said.

Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are about 30 miles north of Wausau. Both schools have been under federal investigation for possible criminal and civil rights abuse of inmates. The ACLU of Wisconsin, along with the Juvenile Law Center and with pro bono help from the Quarles & Brady law firm, have filed a federal court lawsuit over conditions and alleged abuse at the schools, The suit, filed on behalf on former and current inmates, seeks class action status.

The plaintiffs also are seeking a preliminary injunction to temporarily halt most use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and use of restraints.

The county for six years has been reducing the number of youths it commits to the schools, he said. As of March 30, there were a total of 84 boys from Milwaukee County at Lincoln Hills and seven girls at Copper Lake, according to a county report.

“We spent a year-and-a-half trying to convince the state to do something smarter,” Abele said during a meeting of the Milwaukee Community Justice Council. The council includes representatives of many key actors of the justice system who collaborate in an effort to improve the system and its components.

County officials believed at one point that the state was interested in helping establish a youth correctional facility in the Milwaukee area, the exec said.

“We’ll do it right here and have better programming,” Abele said. Instead, he said, Walker proposed adding staff to the existing schools and charging counties more to use them.

Lincoln Hills’ own figures show the institution has a 70 percent to 75 percent recidivism rate, he said. Offenders who commit less serious crimes associate at the facility with more serious criminals, and become worse offenders themselves, he said.

“We are dramatically and expensively making it more likely that people are going to commit crime. … It’s just a poster child for everything that’s wrong,” he said.

Legislation offered by State Sen. Leah Vukmir and State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) that would send more children to the youth prisons “would move us in directly the wrong direction,” he said.

“There’s a lot of legislation that everyone here would love to have Madison pass,” he said. “We spend a lot of time trying to do it and, you know, I can tell you why we’re supportive of getting it passed; you’d have to ask them why they’re not.”

Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and encouraging civic engagement in and debate about the judicial system and its operation.”

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