Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Youth Corrections Proposal Sent To State

Unlike Lincoln Hllls, proposed center emphasizes treatment and programming, not punishment.

By - Sep 11th, 2019 05:29 pm

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by The original uploader was Sulfur at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by The original uploader was Sulfur at English Wikipedia (GFDL) or (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Milwaukee County hopes to fundamentally change the way it treats juvenile justice in the coming years, but it may be limited by the structure of state funding.

It recently submitted its final grant application seeking funds for a new youth correctional center in Milwaukee now that Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are set to close in 2021.

The state has budgeted for $80 million in bonding to pay for new Secure Residential Care Centers for Children and Youth around the state. Four counties submitted applications in July that, combined, would have cost the state $134 million. So the state asked the counties to look for cost-savings to get nearer the $80 million it had budgeted. But the state has not budgeted for ongoing operations of these new facilities — funding which the county’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) believes is critical to reforming juvenile justice.

DHHS submitted its final proposal Sept. 9. It asked for $23.6 million to develop one of two potential options for a residential care center in Milwaukee. When they presented their plans to the county board’s committee on Health and Human Services Wednesday, department administrators emphasized that their plans focus on treatment and programming for the kids. A different approach to juvenile corrections than the past.

As has been widely reported, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake were rife with abuse and unsafe conditions for youth. Law enforcement eventually raided the facilities as part of a criminal probe. Their planned closure and the funding for new facilities was the response from the state.

“This is a huge opportunity for the youth that are still placed up at Copper lake and Lincoln Hills,” said Mary Jo Meyers, DHHS director. “It’s a huge opportunity for Milwaukee County and we have to make sure we get this right.”

Both options in the county’s application involve renovations and new construction at the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center. And they both would make the sectioned living spaces, or pods, smaller, so there aren’t as many kids in each unit.

One option would create 24 beds at the center, with funds to renovate and potentially lease spaces in the community for another 16 beds, allowing the county to house 40 kids. The second option would just focus on renovations and a buildout at the center and would result in 32 beds.

Right now, Milwaukee County has 33 youths at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities. Meyers said the county doesn’t want to overbuild the new center, or “have too many beds for judges to be able to put children on correctional orders.”

“We want to focus more on safety of the community as it relates to treating our young people in a way that will most likely make them more successful in the long run. So we’re putting a heavy emphasis into staff and programming,” Meyers said.

Along with the new centers, the county wants an emphasis on community-based alternatives to a correctional center, transitional services and aftercare and staff for a secure residential treatment like the Bakari Center.

The state bonding that’s available does not cover operational costs like programming. Still, Milwaukee County included $2.9 million worth of “front-end diversion” and “after-care transition programming” in their application. A report from DHHS said the department “believes that reform of youth justice cannot be successful without this investment.”

Because of the funding that’s available, Meyers said the county is placed in the position of “asking for money for bricks and mortar when we would much rather be putting money into programming and people.”

The county is also changing its approach to juvenile justice for girls. Mark Mertens, administrator for DHHS and the Department of Youth & Family Services, put it this way, “We’re taking a policy position that we recognize in the vast majority of cases, that girls get sent to corrections for different reasons than boys.”

Very often, Mertens said, girls are sent to correctional facilities not because they represent a danger to the community, but because their behavior may represent a danger to themselves.

“We recognize and acknowledge that we need to do something different for girls,” Mertens said. “We have to find more robust services for girls.”

So the county won’t be building out additional space for girls in a new facility. Instead the county is looking at community based residential facilities for girls. Meyers said the county needs to take more of a treatment approach for girls than it has in the past.

Mertens emphasized that “it’s not justice to put those girls in a secure correctional type of setting” when the goal is “to make them safe from themselves.”

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us