Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Wants Zero Youth in State Juvenile Prisons

Milwaukee County is attempting to have zero Milwaukee youth in state facilities by the end of 2021.

By - May 26th, 2021 07:37 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 number of Milwaukee youth incarcerated in state-run juvenile prisons continues to decline.

The Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported earlier this month that the average daily population of county youth incarcerated in state facilities is 23. The plan is to have that down to zero by the end of 2021.

The county has been working to lower the number of youth committed to the state-run facilities, Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls.

On May 12th, Mark Mertens, Division of Youth and Family Services administrator, told the County Board’s Health Equity, Human Needs and Strategic Planning Committee that the current total population of Milwaukee youth at the two facilities was 15 boys and one girl.

The county has been actively working to reduce the number of young people sent to state facilities, instead trying to build out programming and space at the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center and the Bakari Center and through community-based alternatives to incarceration.

The county started down this path in 2015 after a criminal investigation was launched into the state-run prisons for mistreatment and abuse of the youth incarcerated there.

In 2018, the state Legislature passed Act 185 which set a deadline for closing the two state prisons, and funded the creation of a new state-operated facility for serious juvenile offenders and a handful of county run facilities — called Secure residential Care Centers for Children and Youth (SRCCCY) — so that youth would be incarcerated closer to home.

Act 185 was ultimately a failure. It didn’t provide enough funding for the county-run facilities, specifically the one in Milwaukee County, which saw the budget repeatedly slashed throughout the grant making process. Several counties, including Milwaukee, ended up deferring the funding absent a sustainable plan for youth corrections from the state.

The legislation also set a deadline for the closure of the state facilities by January 2021. When it was clear that was not feasible, the deadline was pushed to July 2021. That deadline will also be missed.

Conditions at the youth prisons deteriorated during the pandemic, according to a report by a court appointed monitor. Increased isolation and virtual learning led to more fights and assaults among the youth and an increase in the use of restraints and isolation by prison staff.

In his 2022-2023 biennial budget proposal, Governor Tony Evers included a number of provisions related to youth justice, including capital funding for new youth justice facilities, but many were cut from the budget by the Republican-controlled Joint Committee on Finance.

Despite the ongoing budget deliberations and what they may hold for the future of youth corrections in Wisconsin, the county is trying to reduce the number of youth at state-run facilities to zero by the end of 2021.

Mertens said the county plans to seek certification of the Milwaukee County Accountability Program (MCAP), which it operates at the Juvenile Justice Center, as a SRCCCY. If the state grants this certification, it would substantially contribute to lowering the number of county youth at state-run facilities.

“That will change the calculus somewhat, because at that point our program will become the first choice statutorily for youth that need a correctional type of program. Mertens said. “Judges would have to make a finding that essentially our program is inappropriate for a youth in order to send them to Lincoln Hills.”

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