Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Crowley Defers Youth Corrections Grant Until State Has Sustainable Plan

County wants the state to assure enough funding to build and maintain a new facility.

By - Sep 16th, 2020 06:58 pm
Milwaukee County SRCCCY Rendering.

Milwaukee County SRCCCY Rendering.

After the state repeatedly cut funding for Milwaukee County’s new youth detention facility, county officials are refusing funding for a new facility until there is a commitment from the state to fund it in a sustainable manner.

In 2018, the state Legislature passed Act 185 which set a timeline for closing the state’s two youth detention facilities — Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls — by July 2021, after they were the target of a federal investigation into mistreatment and abuse. The legislation also provided funding for counties to develop their own, local detention facilities.

For two years the county has been planning a new facility. And at every turn, the state has forced Milwaukee County to reduce its funding request. Meanwhile, the three other counties involved in the process — Dane, Brown and Racine counties — had their requests approved. Brown County actually received $3.4 million more than it requested.

In August, County Executive David Crowley wrote to Kevin Carr, secretary of the Department of Corrections (DOC), requesting to defer acceptance of the grant. “In light of the continued uncertainty around the availability of resources to realize the full vision of Wisconsin Act 185, we are deferring grant acceptance until further information is available about the State’s plan for the Type 1 facilities as well as potential operating support… in the next biennial budget,” Crowley wrote. 

Milwaukee County was not the only one to request deferral. Dane and Brown counties both requested deferrals.

The county had plans for a new facility and a new approach to youth corrections. Its final funding request asked for $23.6 million to renovate the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center into a 32-bed facility that would be more like a residential treatment center than the child prisons at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.

But the Legislature’s Republican controlled Joint Committee on Finance cut the plan by $8.4 million, reducing the county’s available funding for a new facility to $15.2 million. 

So the county went back to the drawing board and developed a plan that maintained the vision for rehabilitative care in a 32-bed facility. But they couldn’t do it with $15.2 million. Officials estimated they needed another $2.7 million, or $17.9 million.

Crowley wrote, “Milwaukee County would need to invest nearly $2.7 million of its own funding which equates to 15 percent rather than the five percent required by Act 185.” The “unanticipated increase in costs” and “operating gap” for supporting the facility “creates significant sustainability concerns,” he wrote.

On top of this funding discrepancy, Crowley said, are the financial challenges Milwaukee County and the state face because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “With county revenues plummeting and cost of services surging, we are concerned about exacerbating these financial uncertainties, unless we receive additional revenue from the state,” he wrote.

“We share the belief with Governor [Tony] Evers that it is necessary and possible to establish a new paradigm of youth justice that assures our youth receive proper care under conditions that promote growth and affirms, rather than destroys, the social contract between youth and society,” Crowley wrote.

Reducing Youth Incarceration Footprint

There are “so many things that are yet undecided in regard to ACT 185,” Mark Mertens, administrator of the Division of Youth and Family Services, told the county board’s Health and Human Services Committee. Among them, as Crowley pointed out, is how the county would even fund the ongoing costs of running the new facility.

So for now, the county is working to operate within its means at the Vel R. Philips facility, Mertens said. Officials are trying to improve treatment, and have partnered with community organizations like Running Rebels and the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Brookfield.

“I don’t think that waiting is harming us,” Mertens said. “In fact, I think it’s giving us the opportunity to really test and see what capacity we really need in the deepest end of our justice system.”

County officials are still operating as though the detention facilities will close in 2021, Mertens said. As such, they are trying to reduce the number of commitments the county makes to youth detention using community-based alternatives to incarceration.

The county has reduced its commitments to the state-run youth detention facilities. The average-daily-population of Milwaukee youths in state detention went from more than 70 in 2018 to less than 30 recently. Currently there are zero girls from the county at Copper Lake and 44 boys at Lincoln Hills.

When the county first started planning two years ago, officials thought they would need an 80 bed facility. Not any more. “We will not need anything near that because of the success we’ve had in finding community based alternatives,” Mertens said.

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