How New York Handles Juvenile Justice
"Close to Home" program could provide model for Wisconsin. First in a series.
The walk from a subway station in Brooklyn, New York, to a secure facility for kids in the criminal justice system takes all of five minutes. The route passes by a laundromat, a Chinese takeout restaurant, a bodega with fresh flowers on the sidewalk and a college preparatory high school.
It’s a little different than the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Milwaukee through fields and farms to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons in the unincorporated town of Irma, Wisconsin.
In Brooklyn, the gray stone apartment building is indistinguishable from other homes on the block. A hip-level black gate with decorative trim opens up to a concrete courtyard with a space for recycling bins. Blue stairs lead to a glass-paned locked door. Once opened, another locked door is just inside, an additional yet subtle security measure.
The windows have bars on them that match the aesthetic of the gate. No razor barbed wire is in sight.
Young people whom family courts deem to be the highest risk to the community are placed in this limited-secure facility, right in the middle of a residential neighborhood, across the street from a school.
The front room has two couches by the window and a box of board games for when families come to visit the kids, usually at least once a week.
In the winter, the youths help shovel neighbors’ sidewalks, and in the summer, they help garden, said Lisa Crook, vice president of justice for youth and families programs at Rising Ground, one of the nonprofits that operates these homes.
“There’s this mindset, like ‘oh, you need to be punished for your crime,’ but what I’ve often said is just because we have a homelike setting, and we have therapeutic intervention, does not mean that the kids are not acutely aware of the accountability and what led them to be placed with us in the first place,” Crook said.
“If you have a program that looks institutional and treats a kid institutionally, you teach someone how to be institutionalized,” she added.
In the year and a half since the Wisconsin legislature passed a bill to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and replace the state’s youth prisons with smaller regional facilities, local and state leaders have proposed various replacement plans. Leaders from Milwaukee County—including County Executive Chris Abele—have looked to best practices in places across the country to use as inspiration for changes locally. They have continually referenced New York’s Close to Home reform initiative as a model to learn from.
New York’s approach
Felipe Franco, deputy commissioner for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, said: “We believe that kids should be served in their homes or close to their homes, and we value that these communities and these families are actually part of the solution.”
This wasn’t always the mindset in New York.
In 2012, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation called Close to Home, which restructured the way New York’s youth justice system worked as a whole. The initiative moved all of the state’s young people from state-run youth prison facilities upstate into community-based programs, and, in some situations, into small residential care homes with limited security measures, in the city.
More robust alternative-to-incarceration programs were put in place to give judges sentencing options that wouldn’t remove youths from their homes. The criteria for who was considered “high risk” and in need of residential placement were changed, with the goal to keep more kids at home and limit the number of youths who are placed in the Close to Home facilities.
For those who the courts decide do need to be placed, these 29 home-like facilities—which can house up to 12 youths but these days usually have fewer than five—adhere to a therapeutic model of care that focuses on shifting the way young people make decisions.
The emphasis is on family engagement and involvement in the broader community to prepare the youths for returning home. Girls are housed separately from boys. Nonprofits receive contracts from the city to operate the homes, so as the needs change and as the number of youths being placed declines, the city can easily close homes or change their purpose.
The sweeping reforms came in the wake of a declining youth crime rate, a significantly increasing cost of housing a young person in one of the upstate prisons and mounting pressure from advocates as investigations and reports of abuse surfaced from the state facilities. Leaders have acknowledged that the youth prison model they were using was no longer effective for New York’s young people.
Just one year before New York passed Close to Home, in 2011, Wisconsin took a drastically different approach to shifting how it handled youths in the justice system.
Rather than shuttering large prison-like institutions and moving Milwaukee youths back to the city, the state closed its correctional facility in Southeastern Wisconsin, Ethan Allen in Delafield, Wisconsin, and transferred all of the youths to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
Since then, in line with national trends, New York and Wisconsin have both continued to experience a decline in youth arrests and residential placement in correctional facilities. They both also arrest and lock up black and brown youths at much higher rates than their white counterparts.
However, other than that, the states’ two approaches have yielded vastly different outcomes.
In Wisconsin, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake fell into a state of well-documented disarray that has cost taxpayers more than $25 million in legal fees to date. Criminal investigations have opened and closed. Youths have sued for allegations of abuse, injury, sexual assault and neglect at the institution. The facilities experienced severe understaffing and inadequate training.
Expenses have soared. It now costs more than $144,000 a year to incarcerate each young person at Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake and is expected to surpass $200,000 in the next year. The most recent recidivism rate for youths at Lincoln Hills within the three- year period from 2014 to 2017 was 58.8%, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Meanwhile in New York, from 2014 to 2016, only 7.6% of youths violated their probation and 14% were readmitted to a Close to Home facility. From 2013 to 2018, the number of youths placed in residential facilities in New York dropped by 71%, in effect shrinking the whole system. In the 2018 fiscal year, only 154 youths in all of New York City were placed in Close to Home facilities, according to New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services.
But possibly more revealing than just recidivism or a decline in placements, the Close to Home reforms in New York seem to be creating additional positive outcomes for youths, according to a report from the Columbia Justice Lab, a research organization at Columbia University studying justice system reform. In the 2016-’17 school year, 91% of youths in the facilities passed their academic classes. In 2016, 91% of youths enrolled in a community-based program after being released from a facility and 67% successfully completed their aftercare program.
“I think the Close to Home programs they have now are reasonable,” said Nathan, a 13-year-old who completed a placement in a Close to Home facility. “If you’re going to commit a crime, it’s not like you’re just going to get a walk in the park. I’m not saying that it’s lit, but it’s actually reasonable. It’s not like you’re in jail.”
“I really matured when I was in there,” he said. “They taught me how to look at things differently, and it helped me mature.”
Lessons for Wisconsin?
The changes that Wisconsin and Milwaukee make in the wake of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake closing have the potential to affect the future of some of the state’s most vulnerable youths.
In its most recent application to the state juvenile justice grant committee, Milwaukee County submitted a proposal that in some ways resembles the Close to Home model.
The county’s latest plan includes renovations to existing residential facilities, including the Vel R. Phillips Youth Detention Center, and possibly leasing other spaces in partnership with existing service providers to create 32 total beds for Milwaukee youths placed in residential correctional settings. The plan would also build out more local, community‐based programs to accommodate youths in the system instead of sending them upstate or placing them in correctional settings.
However, the state grant committee has yet to determine which counties will receive funding for their replacement plans.
Other counties across Wisconsin have also applied, and their proposals include building new secure correctional facilities and renovating detention centers.
Additionally, the state Department of Corrections has released renderings of a youth prison with 35 beds that it seeks to build in Milwaukee County for youths deemed “serious juvenile offenders.” The state also plans to build a youth prison in Hortonia and to significantly expand Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center, which is a secure correctional facility in Madison, increasing the number of beds across the state for youth in the justice system.
In New York, Crook stressed the importance of making sure kids are connected to supports in their communities.
“We have to be real,” Crook said. “The kids are going back to the same places they’re coming from, and so they have to learn how to make better decisions in the same communities where they’re at.”
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on eighteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.
More about the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake
- Op Ed: Will Lincoln Hills Ever Be Closed? - State Sen. Jeff Smith - Dec 10th, 2019
- Special Report: New York’s After Care Program Helps Youth - Allison Dikanovic - Sep 17th, 2019
- MKE County: Youth Corrections Proposal Sent To State - Graham Kilmer - Sep 11th, 2019
- Special Report: Building Trust Can Help Juvenile Offenders - Allison Dikanovic - Sep 11th, 2019
- Special Report: How New York Handles Juvenile Justice - Allison Dikanovic - Sep 10th, 2019
- County Proposal Replaces Youth Prison - Corri Hess - Jul 18th, 2019
- What’s Happening With State’s Youth Prisons? - Allison Dikanovic - Jul 4th, 2019
- Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and The Department of Health and Human Services Announce New Approach for Youth Justice Reform - County Executive Chris Abele - Jul 1st, 2019
- Gov. Evers Signs Act 185 Trailer Bill - Gov. Tony Evers - Jul 1st, 2019
- Senator Taylor Pushes Juvenile Corrections Reform - State Sen. Lena Taylor - Jun 12th, 2019
- Youth Justice Milwaukee: Wisconsin Must Include Community Input for Any Youth Transfers - Youth Justice Milwaukee - May 10th, 2019
- County Opposes Plan to Replace Lincoln Hills - Allison Dikanovic - May 7th, 2019
- Youth Justice Milwaukee: Lincoln Hills Continued Use of Pepper Spray, Suicide Risk Shows Youth Prison Model is Broken - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Apr 19th, 2019
- County Submits Youth Prison Proposal - Corri Hess - Mar 30th, 2019
- 6 Things to Know About Lincoln Hills - Allison Dikanovic - Mar 22nd, 2019
- Evers Announces Youth Prison for City - Laurel White - Mar 13th, 2019
- Gov. Evers Moves Forward on Plans to Close Lincoln Hills - Gov. Tony Evers - Mar 12th, 2019
- Evers Proposes Delay Of Youth Prison Closure - Laurel White - Feb 28th, 2019
- Youth Justice Milwaukee: We Must Move With a Sense of Urgency - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Feb 27th, 2019
- MKE County: County Officials Offer Antidote to Youth Prisons - Dave Fidlin - Feb 14th, 2019
- Delay in Closing Youth Prisons Criticized - Allison Dikanovic - Feb 4th, 2019
- Youth Justice Milwaukee: “We need action, not excuses.” - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Jan 30th, 2019
- County Picks Location for Youth Offender Facility - Allison Dikanovic - Jan 29th, 2019
- MKE County: County Prepares for Lincoln Hills Closing - Corri Hess - Jan 26th, 2019
- Problems Continue At State Youth Prisons - Laurel White - Jan 15th, 2019
- Youth Justice Milwaukee: Unacceptable Conditions Show We Can’t Wait for 2021 to Close Lincoln Hills - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Jan 14th, 2019
- State Rep. David Bowen Applauds New Governor Evers Visit to Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake - State Rep. David Bowen - Jan 14th, 2019
- Evers Will Visit Lincoln Hills - Shawn Johnson - Jan 3rd, 2019
- New Residential Treatment Facility Opens - Allison Dikanovic - Dec 19th, 2018
- Youth Justice Milwaukee Hosts Successful Roundtable with Elected Leaders on Youth Justice Reform - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Dec 12th, 2018
- Youth Justice Milwaukee Calls for More Community Input at Department of Corrections Community Meeting on Plans for Lincoln Hills Closure - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Sep 18th, 2018
- Youth Justice Milwaukee Statement on Judge’s OK to Lincoln Hills Settlement - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Sep 14th, 2018
- Youth Justice Milwaukee Statement on Lincoln Hills Incident with Young Person with Appendicitis - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Aug 31st, 2018
- Op Ed: Lincoln Hills Closed. Now What’s Needed? - Sharlen Moore - Aug 27th, 2018
- Wall Blasts Walker, Schimel on Youth Prison - Laurel White - Aug 13th, 2018
- Youth Justice Milwaukee: Department of Corrections Should Meet with Stakeholders in Milwaukee on Lincoln Hills - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Aug 8th, 2018
- Juvenile Corrections Reform Signed Into Law - State Rep. Evan Goyke - Apr 2nd, 2018
- Governor Walker Signs Bipartisan Juvenile Justice Reform Bill into Law - Gov. Scott Walker - Mar 30th, 2018
- Speaker Vos Statement: Signing of the ‘Wisconsin Model’ for Juvenile Corrections Reform - Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos - Mar 30th, 2018
- Shilling statement on Lincoln Hills - State Sen. Jennifer Shilling - Mar 30th, 2018
- Rep. Bowen statement on passage of Wisconsin Model of youth justice - State Rep. David Bowen - Feb 21st, 2018
- Kleefisch-Bowen bill lays foundation for youth corrections overhaul - State Rep. David Bowen - Feb 13th, 2018
- Taylor and Bipartisan Legislators Introduce Juvenile Corrections Bill - State Sen. Lena Taylor - Feb 13th, 2018
- Walker Renews Call to Gut Services - State Sen. Lena Taylor - Jan 18th, 2018
- Supervisor Sequanna Taylor Offers to Help Governor Walker with Plan to Close Lincoln Hill and Copper Lake - Sup. Sequanna Taylor - Jan 18th, 2018
- Statement on Delayed Action at Lincoln Hills - State Sen. Jennifer Shilling - Jan 16th, 2018
- Governor Walker Calls on Legislature to Pass Bipartisan Reform for Wisconsin’s Juvenile Corrections System in 2018 - Gov. Scott Walker - Jan 16th, 2018
- Response to Walker’s revisions last night on Lincoln Hills - Democratic Party of Wisconsin - Jan 16th, 2018
- Another Walker Non-Answer on Lincoln Hills Raises a Significant Question - Democratic Party of Wisconsin - Jan 12th, 2018
- When Will Lincoln Hills Close? - Democratic Party of Wisconsin - Jan 9th, 2018
- Shuttering of Lincoln Hills a first step in bringing true rehabilitation for youth offenders - Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton - Jan 5th, 2018
- Career Politician Gov. Scott Walker Governs For Re-Election With Campaign Gimmick - Andy Gronik - Jan 4th, 2018
- Changes Needed at Lincoln Hills Now, Not After the Next Election - State Sen. Chris Larson - Jan 4th, 2018
- Walker agrees to do his job after years of willful neglect and political cover up at Lincoln Hills — now when it threatens his own re-election - Democratic Party of Wisconsin - Jan 4th, 2018
- Walker a Day Late and Dollar Short on Juvenile Corrections - State Sen. Lena Taylor - Jan 4th, 2018
- Governor Walker Announces Plan to Provide a Long-Term Solution for Wisconsin’s Juvenile Corrections and Treatment Systems - Gov. Scott Walker - Jan 4th, 2018
- Dana Wachs calls on Walker administration to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake - State Rep. Dana Wachs - Nov 16th, 2017
- Op Ed: Lincoln Hills Even Worse Than Reported - Jake Edwards - Nov 16th, 2017
- Close Lincoln Hills: Advocates and Officials Reiterate Call for Closing Abusive Youth Prisons - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Nov 16th, 2017
- 2018 Budget Includes $90,000 for Youth Training Program - Sup. Sequanna Taylor - Nov 6th, 2017
- Rep. Bowen statement on DOC Internal Affairs Unit - State Rep. David Bowen - Oct 10th, 2017
- Sen. LaTonya Johnson’s Juvenile Justice Reform Signed Into Law - State Sen. LaTonya Johnson - Aug 2nd, 2017
- Court Watch: Judge Rules on Lincoln Hills - Gretchen Schuldt - Jul 13th, 2017
- Federal Court finds current conditions of confinement for youth at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools unconstitutional - American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin - Jun 23rd, 2017
- Court Watch: Pictures of Youths in Prison - Gretchen Schuldt - Jun 20th, 2017
- Abele Blasts State on Juvenile Prisons - Gretchen Schuldt - Apr 27th, 2017
- Court Watch: ACLU Seeks Lincoln Hills Injunction - Gretchen Schuldt - Apr 20th, 2017
- More Horrors at Juvenile Prisons? - Gretchen Schuldt - Apr 19th, 2017
- Court Watch: Chemical Spraying Used At Lincoln Hills - Gretchen Schuldt - Jan 27th, 2017
- Court Watch: Shocking Charges in Lincoln Hills Suit - Gretchen Schuldt - Jan 25th, 2017
- Corrections Officials Face Community on Lincoln Hills - Jabril Faraj - Jun 22nd, 2016
- Precious Lives: A Debate Over Lincoln Hills Problems - Dee J. Hall - May 24th, 2016
- Op-Ed: End Solitary Confinement, Especially of Youth - Laurence J. Dupuis - Feb 18th, 2016
- Murphy’s Law: Why Walker Allowed Lincoln Hills Abuses - Bruce Murphy - Feb 16th, 2016