Graham Kilmer

State Can’t Meet Deadline to Close Youth Prisons

Plan to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and relocate youth now up in the air.

By - Dec 30th, 2020 02:42 pm
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.

The state will likely have to extend the deadline — once again — for closing the youth corrections facilities at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.

The youth prisons’ deadline for closing was July 2021, but there is no plan in place for where to put the youth that need to remain in a secured facility after the closure. Mark Mertens, administrator of Milwaukee County’s Division of Youth and Family Services, said that if the state and county came to an agreement today concerning the funding to build a new facility in Milwaukee, the improvements on the new facility would not be ready before the deadline.

Act 185 was passed by the state Legislature in 2018. It allocated funding to build new secure facilities in counties around the state so that incarcerated youth would not be taken so far from home. But the legislation did not provide enough money to feasibly build out these facilities — just $40 million for four counties.

The original deadline to close the youth prisons was January 2021. It was extended to July 2021 in legislation passed in 2019 that also allocated additional funding for the new local corrections facilities.

Milwaukee County spent about two years developing a plan for a new local youth corrections facility. It worked with a state grants committee for months, pushing down the budget for its new facility. In the final act of the grant making process, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee slashed the funding for Milwaukee’s facility while other counties were given more than they asked for.

That led County Executive David Crowley to defer accepting the grant to build the new facility. The funds were not enough to build what the county had spent two years planning. Crowley would not accept the grant until the state provided more information regarding sustainable funding and planning for the future facilities, he said in a letter to Kevin Carr, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

The county’s current policy is to continue to work to reduce the number of commitments to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, so when they are closed, the county can house all of the youth from there at Milwaukee’s Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center.

The county’s final plan, before the state Legislature slashed its funding was to build out the Phillips center into a new facility.

Dane and Brown counties also declined to accept the grants.

In October, the Wisconsin Counties Association held a meeting with the four counties originally intended to build new facilities — Racine, Milwaukee, Dane and Brown. At the meeting, it was suggested that if the counties do not accept the grants, the state could repurpose the $102.5 million allocated for the local facilities and use it for a single youth facility by making improvements to an existing facility in Mendota.

If this happens, one of the goals of Act 185, to keep incarcerated children in their home counties, would be abandoned.

Mertens recently told the county board that the administration continues to “monitor” the situation with Act 185 funding and whether or not to accept the grant.

If the county is faced with a situation of bringing children from Lincoln Hills to Vel R. Phillips, and the pandemic mitigation efforts are still in place, “it could pose some challenges,” Mertens said. The “pods” which make up the living quarters for the children are not at full capacity in order to mitigate potential spread of the virus, he said.

The county has been successful in recent years in reducing the number of Milwaukee children that are sent to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake through the use of community-based alternatives to incarceration. As of October, the county was reporting only 29 youth at the two facilities, compared to more than 100 in 2015.

Even before the county locates all the children at the Phillips center, Mertens said the facility needs additional space for programming and a “softening” of the living facilities for the children who are already there.

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