Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Plan Expands Alternative To Youth Prisons

County would spend $4.1 million in ARPA funds to expand local alternative to state prisons.

By - Jun 13th, 2022 11:09 am

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Sulfur at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Sulfur at English Wikipedia (GFDL) or (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Milwaukee County officials are hoping to expand a juvenile justice program that would keep kids out of state-run youth prisons.

A Task Force charged with reviewing requests for funding from the county’s federal stimulus allocation under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) recommended a request for approval Thursday that would provide approximately $4.1 million to expand a sentencing alternative to state prisons like Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.

Officials hope that expanding this alternative will begin to ease the overcrowding at the county-run juvenile detention center and lead to fewer Milwaukee children being sent to state-run youth prisons.

The alternative is called the Milwaukee County Accountability Program (MCAP), that, according to a DHHS report, “provides intensive supervision, advocacy, structure, support, and skill-building opportunities for youth who are court ordered into the program.” It is a sentencing alternative that involves a 180-day stay in a secure facility, then the youth is transitioned home with “aftercare planning and intervention for the young person and their family.”

Currently the program is capped at 24 kids. This limit has produced a waitlist, sometimes with as many as 28 kids on it waiting six to 12 weeks in detention to get into the program. The additional funding would allow DHHS to expand the program by 15 additional kids, and there are currently 13 on the waitlist.

For months, county officials have been warning that the Vel R. Philips Juvenile Justice Center has been seeing record numbers of young people being referred there. At times, the facility has run out of beds.  Kelly Pethke, administrator of the Division of Youth and Family Services (CYFS), said there recently was an all-time high of 147 youth in the 127 -bed facility.

David Muhammad, DHHS Deputy Director, told supervisors on Thursday that officials had considered having children sleep in the gymnasium because there were so many youth forced to sleep on cots.

Between 2019 and 2021, CYFS, which is responsible for the juvenile justice center, saw a 37% increase in referrals for armed robbery and a 129% increase in youth referred on charges of possession of a dangerous weapon, according to a new report from DHHS.

“The impact of the pandemic has definitely contributed to what young people are engaging in which is leading them to the Department of Corrections,” said Pethke.

The MCAP program is a new strategy for working with youth offenders that seeks to treat the root causes of behavior that lands them in a correctional setting, as opposed to simply incarcerating them. It was supposed to serve as the model for a new county-run youth correctional facility, which would have been funded by the state as part of its attempt to reform juvenile corrections statewide after allegations of abuse led the FBI to investigate the state’s Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities.

In 2018, the state Legislature passed 2017 Act 185. The bill called for the closing of the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, the creation of several county-run Secure Residential Care Centers for Children and Youth and the construction of a new state youth prison.

But the state underfunded the county facilities and still hasn’t constructed a new type-1 facility. The deadline to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake was in 2021, but they remain open for lack of alternatives.

Courts have interpreted Act 185 to mean they can’t legally order children to state facilities, but DOC has developed a work-around whereby it won’t object to a “change of placement” motion filed by courts to send children to a state facility.

This is affecting some juveniles who are ordered to MCAP and put on a waitlist, Pethke said. “They are then doing a change of placement” and sending the juveniles to the state prisons, “because they can take the kids right now.”

The county had made it a priority to eventually reduce the number of Milwaukee children in state facilities to zero. And it was making headway on this goal until the pandemic hit. Pethke told supervisors that going into the pandemic the number of Milwaukee youth at state corrections was down to 22, and now it has nearly doubled with 39 kids in corrections.

The state charges the county $1,154 per day for every youth incarcerated in a state facility, or more than $420,000 a year. This has led DHHS to project a budget deficit for 2022 if this continues, which jeopardizes the department’s ability to invest in prevention and incarceration alternatives.

DHHS estimates that expanding MCAP would save the county more than $3.8 million over the course of a year, and as much as $8.9 million between 2022 and 2024, compared to the cost of incarcerating children in state facilities.

“If the county does not move to expand incarceration alternatives,” Muhammad told supervisors, “then we essentially step back from anything that’s community facing or community based.”

One thought on “MKE County: Plan Expands Alternative To Youth Prisons”

  1. Ryan Cotic says:

    With youth crime out of control in the city of Milwaukee I would think we would be doing the exact opposite to protect innocent people from being killed or injured.

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