Graham Kilmer

Can State Rescue Youth Corrections Plan?

Rep. Evan Goyke thinks the failure of the state's plan can lead to creative reforms.

By - Jan 11th, 2021 05:44 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 of Wisconsin’s two youth prisons are supposed to close this summer, but the state has failed to move forward, or fund, plans for new facilities, and now the deadline can’t be met, as Urban Milwaukee has reported

The prisons — Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls — were the subject of a federal investigation after allegations of abuses suffered there came to light. The abuses and the federal investigation led to calls in the state to close the facilities and to reform the system.

In 2018, the state passed 2017 Act 185, followed by tailing legislation in 2019 Act 8, which set a deadline for the closure of the two prisons and outlined a framework for building one or more new Type 1 facilities for youth that a court commits to the state for physical confinement in a facility. Additionally, the plan was to renovate the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center and build new county-operated secure residential care facilities around the state so that youth being incarcerated can be closer to home.

The tailing legislation, 2017 Act 8, extended the deadline for closing the youth prisons by six months, because in the summer of 2019 it was already clear to policymakers that the plans in place for new facilities would not be ready by the original deadline of January 2021.

The legislation requires Department of Corrections to transfer the youth to the county-operated facilities after the deadline. But it also allows these transfers to occur in phases as the facilities are ready to accept the youth. However, less than 6 months from the deadline, three of the four counties still haven’t accepted funding for the new facilities.

Democratic State Rep. Evan Goyke, of the 18th District in Milwaukee, told Urban Milwaukee these projects were the three legs holding up the stool upon which the state’s youth corrections plan sat. In the years since Act 185 was passed, all three legs have been knocked down by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Reform of the state’s criminal justice system is one of the main issues that Goyke has taken on as a legislator. He was a sponsor of Act 185 and has authored a handful of bills aimed at state criminal justice policy. 

The new approach to juvenile corrections was to be known as the “Wisconsin Model.” Goyke even introduced legislation, in March 2020, that sought to match the reforms to the physical institutions with reforms to the Juvenile Justice Code.

But when it comes to Act 185, Goyke said, “It’s not what happened, it’s what didn’t happen.”

The first leg to fall was funding for the two Type 1 facilities. The Legislature’s GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee voted down a request for $73 million from the DOC for the new facilities. In a statement to Urban Milwaukee, DOC said, “When the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee failed to authorize funding for two Type 1 facilities, it negated any chance of [Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake] closing on time.”

The next leg that fell was the county-owned facilities. Four counties — Milwaukee, Racine, Dane and Brown — were approved to design and build local youth corrections facilities, so that youth being incarcerated would be closer to their communities and families.

The counties planned their facilities for two years and consistently trimmed down their funding requests. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) ultimately approved $102 million for the facilities. In doing so, they cut $8 million in funding, with the entire amount of the cut coming from Milwaukee County’s allocation.

Milwaukee has sent more youth to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake than any other county in the state. Yet it was the only county that had its funding slashed. Meanwhile, other counties received more funding than they asked for.

“If we are to build a better system… Milwaukee County will be a critical or the most important local government in that, so taking money away from their proposed solutions only harms us from getting to the destination,” Goyke said.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley eventually deferred accepting the diminished funds, citing, among other things, a lack of clarity from the state on sustainable funding to maintain and operate the facility. He wasn’t alone. Dane and Brown Counties also backed away from the grants. DOC told Urban Milwaukee, “This creates additional challenges to providing a continuum of evidence-based confinement services for youth as envisioned in Act 185.”

The final leg to fall was the juvenile mental health center in Mendota. The plan was to expand the facility with 64 new beds, so that more juvenile offenders could receive treatment at the facility. The project is essentially ready to break ground, Goyke told Urban Milwaukee, but continues to wait for approval from the JFC.

In December, Mark Mertens, administrator of Milwaukee County’s Division of Youth and Family Services, said even if the state and the county reached an agreement on funding that day, the improvements planned for the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center would not be ready before the July deadline.

In its statement to Urban Milwaukee the DOC noted that it will continue to make investments at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and “has made significant investments in programming and services for youth, as well as training and support for staff, and physical space upgrades that allow [Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake] to provide trauma-informed services for youth in our care.” But, “ultimately legislative action is needed to approve the funding for a holistic approach to youth justice that will allow youth to be placed in appropriate settings closer to home,:” the statement noted.

While the timeline that has the state closing the facilities this summer “will not happen,” as Goyke noted, he is looking at the possibility of pulling something constructive from the state’s failure to follow through on Act 185.

The counties have already been working on community-based alternatives to incarceration for youth coming in contact with the criminal justice system. Milwaukee County, notably, has significantly reduced the population of children committed to state Type 1 facilities. As of October, the county was reporting only 29 youth at the two facilities, compared to more than 100 in 2015.

Goyke is looking to spearhead legislation that would “rightsize” the youth justice system, now that the counties have already put in the effort to implement and increase incarceration alternatives. “It’s almost as if our inability to follow through may have presented us with an opportunity to reassess the portfolio that we need,” he said.

For instance, Goyke doesn’t think the state needs to build two Type 1 facilities. He said the number of youth that have been convicted of an adult crime and need to be in a higher security facility is “relatively small” and “stable.” 

Additionally, he suggested, funding might be parceled out in smaller grants to a number of communities — beyond the original four counties — around the state to make improvements to existing facilities.

Goyke said that he thinks a new approach could bring together a number of “unique political bedfellows” with the possibility of youth justice reform and potentially saving money relative to the costs estimated for Act 185 policies.

“We learned a lot,” Goyke said, from the Act 185 process. Despite the failure to actuate the legislation’s policy goals, it can serve as a foundation, he said.

The budget process for the next biennial budget begins this year, and Goyke is hopeful that this will present new opportunities for funding reforms to Wisconsin’s youth justice system.

One thought on “Can State Rescue Youth Corrections Plan?”

  1. Jaimcb says:

    It’s good to know that Goyke seems to be on top of it. I’m hoping now that we can find candidates to replace the obstructionist legislators who enjoy punishing Milwaukee county by withholding funding.

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