Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Cost of Youth Offenders Keeps Rising

Number sent to costly state prisons nearly doubled since March, imperiling county's alternative youth justice programs.

By - Jun 21st, 2022 11:27 am
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 youth being held in state-run juvenile corrections facilities has nearly doubled since March.

It was in March that officials from the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) first went before the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to report a projected budget deficit for 2022 due to an increasing number of Milwaukee youth being sent to facilities operated by the state Department of Corrections.

This was causing the deficit, in part because the state had increased the rate it charged counties to incarcerate a child in the most recent biennial budget. Another rate hike is planned for July 2022. At the current rate charged by the state, it costs the county more than $420,000 per year to incarcerate just one young person.

Officials explained to supervisors that the deficit was imperiling the violence prevention initiatives the department had only recently begun developing, thanks in part to surplus revenue created as the county pursued a policy of reducing the number of youth in state facilities; a policy that saw success with until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“I’m really concerned that all the work that we have done, all of those things that we are trying to do to invest upstream will go away because we won’t have the funding to do it,” said DHHS director Shakita LaGrant-McClain, noting that those things included the credible messengers within the program, youth employment, and the Bakari Center, an alternative program created in 2018.

In early 2021, the county’s Division of Youth and Family Services (CYFS), which is housed within DHHS, reported that the county had reduced the average daily population of youth in state run facilities to 23, and it planned to push that number down to zero by the end of the year. The driving force behind this policy was that county officials did not want to send young people to state facilities like Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake that had been investigated by the FBI for allegations of abuse and mistreatment. Instead, the county wanted to build out a new program, called the Milwaukee County Youth Accountability Program (MCAP), that could serve as an alternative to incarceration for youth, and would seek to treat the causes of the behavior that brought them in contact with the justice system.

But by the end of 2021, the impacts of the pandemic began to show. The county began to see sharp increases in youth being referred to the Vel R. Philips Juvenile Justice Center, compared with pre-pandemic rates. “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 Kelly Pethke, interim CYFS administrator.

Between 2019 and 2021, there was a 37% increased in referrals for armed robbery and a 129% increase in youth referred on charges of possession of a dangerous weapon, according to a recent report from DHHS.

Currently, there are 55 youth from Milwaukee County in a correctional facility run by the state, DHHS told Urban Milwaukee. Of the 55 young people being incarcerated by the state at Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake and Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center, only 18 are there on a court order under the Serious Juvenile Offender Program (SJO), which is for young offenders who have been convicted of a crime that would be a Class A, B, or C felony if committed by an adult. These include offenses like homicide, armed robbery and sex crimes, among others.

Much of the increase in young people sent to state facilities is due to the overcrowding at the county-run juvenile detention center. But this, like many of the other problems facing youth justice in Milwaukee and the state, are the result of the state’s failure to follow through on reforms to the youth justice system passed by the Legislature in 2018, as Urban Milwaukee has reported. The state failed, in large part, because the Legislature woefully underfunded the plan, which included closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, building a new state facility for young people that fall under the SJO program, and a handful of county-run facilities called Secure Residential Care Centers (SRCCCY). The Milwaukee County SRCCCY would have been modeled after its new MCAP program.

The county’s MCAP program has been capped at 24, creating a waitlist. This has meant that youth offenders are ordered by a court to the MCAP program, but end up on a waitlist, and some of them end up being transferred to a state correctional facility while they wait to access the program, administrator Pethke recently told supervisors. Increasing referrals to the county’s 127 bed juvenile facility has caused it to run out of beds, as the population there hit a record high of 147 in recent months, she said.

In a bid to address the overcrowding at the county facility, reduce the number of children in state facilities, and hopefully reduce the projected budget deficit, DHHS officials recently went before the county board seeking funding from the county’s COVID-19 stimulus allocation to expand the MCAP program, eliminating its waitlist. If approved, it could save the county as much as $8.9 million over the next two years, keeping children out of state prisons.

A recent report from the Office of the Milwaukee County Comptroller showed that the budget deficit in DHHS was climbing with the number of youth being sent to state correction facilities. In March it was $4.6 million, as of June 8 it was $5.9 million. But the total deficit caused by the state corrections charges would be $8.9 million, if not for additional savings and revenue the department expects to realize this year, according to the report.

When DHHS officials proposed to expand the MCAP program, Deputy Director David Muhammad explained the dire impact of the deficit on the county’s approach to youth justice, saying “If the county does not move to expand incarceration alternatives, then we essentially step back from anything that’s community facing or community based.”

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