Graham Kilmer
MKE County

State Finance Committee Approves Funding For County Youth Justice Center

State Legislature follows through on juvenile justice plan passed back in 2018.

By - Aug 16th, 2022 04:13 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 Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee approved $13.1 million in funding Tuesday for Milwaukee County to expand and renovate the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center.

The funding comes as the county is seeing a rising number of youth placements at state-run correctional facilities, which comes with an increased cost to the county that is causing it to outspend its 2022 budget.

Following the vote Tuesday, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said in a statement, “Thank you to Governor Tony Evers, Department of Corrections, and the members of the Committee on Joint Finance for their commitment to public safety and investing in evidence-based, healing-focused, and community-centric solutions that put young people on a path to empower their own safe, healthy, meaningful lives. The renovation and expansion of Vel R. Phillips will allow us to continue to keep our youth close to home while receiving the services and programming needed to get our children back on the right track.”

Tuesday’s action was the latest move by state officials to follow through on commitments made in 2017 Wisconsin Act 185 to redesign the state’s juvenile justice system. The legislation was in response to the failures and allegations of abuse at the Lincoln Hill School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls that came to light when the facilities became the subject of a federal probe and were raided by the FBI during the administration of former Governor Scott Walker.

Only in recent months have major steps forward been taken to actually realize the plans laid out in Act 185. The projects outlined in the legislation were initially underfunded by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The plan called for the construction of a new Type 1 facility, which would house juveniles convicted of significant and violent crimes and expansion of the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center. In April of this year, Gov. Evers signed legislation funding development of a new Type 1 facility and a site in Milwaukee was announced in August. Construction to renovate and expand the Mendota facility began in March.

A major piece of the plan was also the construction of a network of smaller regional facilities called Secure Residential Care Centers for Children and Youth (SRCCCYs), which were to be operated by the counties.

Milwaukee County’s initial proposal for a new SRCCCY was repeatedly reduced by a state committee to the point that it became unfeasible to move forward with the project. In 2020, Crowley, who had a hand in crafting Act 185 during during his time as a legislator, wrote to state Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr to say the county would defer acceptance of the state’s funding “until further information is available about the State’s plan for the Type 1 facilities as well as potential operating support.”

The new funding authorized by the Joint Finance Committee Tuesday will support a new plan from the county, not to build a new facility but to expand and renovate the 127-bed Vel R. Phillips facility in Wauwatosa.

At the state committee meeting Tuesday, Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) said, “Getting the Type 1 facility approved in Milwaukee was a major step.”

Goyke, who worked on Act 185 and has been an advocate for rescuing it from the initial failures, said the state’s juvenile justice plan – a Type 1 facility, expanded Mental Health Treatment Center and SRCCCYs – doesn’t work unless all the pieces are in place. He also said the Legislature still has more work to do on the “front-end” of the state’s juvenile justice system, including rewriting the state statutes that govern juvenile criminal proceedings, adding “I think that we as a committee have an opportunity in an upcoming budget to really invest in preventative measures and community based measures.”

When the promise of Act 185 initially fell apart, it stalled a plan by officials in the county’s Department of Health and Human Services to expand a new juvenile justice program that was to serve as the model for care at the new facility. The model is a hybrid alternative to traditional incarceration that involves a 180-day stay in a secure facility, like Vel R. Phillips, and then transitioning to monitoring at home. The program “provides intensive supervision, advocacy, structure, support, and skill-building opportunities for youth who are court ordered into the program,” according to a DHHS report.

“Ultimately, the goal is to get our youth out of detention centers and back into the community leading full and successful lives,” Crowley said. “Today’s vote helps us do just that while reducing barriers to accessing needed services or programming and promoting race and health equity.”

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