Warning Lights Flashing on Youth Justice?
Former county official warns that state's youth justice system is unsustainable, could lead to abuses.
It’s been more than three years since the state Legislature passed a law that was supposed to lead to the closure of the state’s Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile justice facilities. But they have yet to be replaced by new facilities.
Recently, Mark Mertens, former administrator of the Division of Youth and Family Services, in his last week of employment with the county, told the county board’s Health, Equity, Human Needs and Strategic Planning Committee that he’s seeing “flashing red lights” warning of an unsustainable juvenile justice policy that could potentially lead to the sort of horrific conditions that triggered the reforms of 2017 Wisconsin Act 185.
But the legislation only included $40 million for four counties. Later legislation raised the funding to more than $100 million. But during the state’s granting process, Milwaukee County saw its funding repeatedly cut, while other counties were granted more funds than they applied for.
After several revisions to their proposal, the county was granted just $15.2 million — some $26 million less than they originally applied for. In August 2020, County Executive David Crowley wrote to Kevin Carr, secretary of the state Department of Corrections (DOC), informing him that the county would defer acceptance of the funding, “in light of the continued uncertainty around the availability of resources to realize the full vision of Wisconsin Act 185.”
The county has been working hard, in cooperation with the courts, to send fewer children to the state facilities. Over the past five years commitments at the state facilities have steadily decreased from 125 to 18 today. Mertens said the number of youth has been holding steady at around 18 for months now. “And I’m not completely sure what that’s about,” he said. “Basically it’s just that we’ve reached some sort of equilibrium.”
Crowley deferred acceptance of the state funding because it was unclear whether sustainable long term funding to maintain a new facility would be available. Now, with no solution in sight from the state, and Vel R. Phillips at capacity, the new position of the county is that it will accept the grant money to renovate the Vel R. Phillips facility, according to Mertens. He added that the county executive and county officials are working to raise additional funds.
“In a perfect world, the program would not be in a detention setting,” Mertens said, adding he’d like to see youth in a trauma-informed setting. “The best we can do, I believe, is to make Vel Phillips as close to that as possible.”
The $15 million isn’t enough to build a robust, sustainable treatment program, Mertens said. Which is why the county originally deferred acceptance.
Mertens said that judges have also recently taken the position that they cannot legally send children to Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake.
The Hermes memo notes that Act 185, “has restructured the juvenile justice system.” But the deadlines for building out and adequately funding the infrastructure for such a system have long passed, and Milwaukee County’s facility is filling up.
“I want to take the opportunity to advocate and say that from my seat there are flashing red lights around this issue,” Mertens said. “That it’s not sustainable as it is.”
The county’s juvenile justice center needs investments in both the Phillips facility and its programming, or else it’s “at risk of devolving into a facility that is much like Lincoln Hills had been in the past where it’s not safe and where there’s not adequate programming.”
Mertens said Superintendent Kevin Gilboy and his staff have made the county facility a “remarkably responsive place for youth.” He said the use of force has been reduced by 80% in the facility, the young people are treated with respect and there is a “very robust education program.”
“If we impose conditions on our staff that, over time, make that difficult to sustain, I fear that we may be repeating history,” Mertens said.
Mertens said this increase is eating away at the savings from lowering state commitments that county officials planned to use on community-based alternatives to incarceration for juveniles, including the credible messengers program.
County officials, including the county executive and those directly involved with youth justice, have been saying the state has failed to create a sustainable framework for the implementation of Act 185, and now, despite the state-run facilities remaining open, the county’s own facility is at risk of becoming the kind of detention environment that spurred the original call for legislative reforms.
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.
- MKE County: Warning Lights Flashing on Youth Justice? - Graham Kilmer - Dec 15th, 2021
- Still No Facility To Replace State’s Youth Prisons - Edgar Mendez - Oct 21st, 2021
- MKE County: County Wants Zero Youth in State Juvenile Prisons - Graham Kilmer - May 26th, 2021
- Report Finds Improvements in Youth Prisons - Isiah Holmes - Apr 21st, 2021
- New Therapy Used at Lincoln Hills - Rob Mentzer - Apr 20th, 2021
- Evers Proposes $45.8 Million for Milwaukee Juvenile Facility - Gretchen Schuldt - Mar 1st, 2021
- MKE County: County Has Just 22 Inmates in Youth Prisons - Edgar Mendez - Feb 24th, 2021
- Evers Pushes Juvenile Justice System Changes - Corri Hess - Feb 18th, 2021
- Youth Justice Milwaukee Calls for Transformation of the Wisconsin Youth Justice System as the State Acknowledges it Will Not Meet the July 2021 Deadline to Close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Prisons - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Feb 8th, 2021
- Pandemic Causes Youth Prison Problems - Graham Kilmer - Jan 27th, 2021
Read more about Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake here