Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Vote Could Send More Youth to Lincoln Hills

Board votes down deal with Racine County to hold youth in its detention center.

By - Sep 22nd, 2022 07:46 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.

A vote by the Milwaukee County Board Thursday could end up sending more children to the troubled state-run youth prisons at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.

The county youth detention center has been struggling with overcrowding for nearly the past year. This has led the facility to lay out plastic mattress holders, or boats as they are called, on the floor for children to sleep when it exceeds its 127-bed capacity. 

In May, the facility hit a record high 150 children at one time. Over the past decade, the average census has been approximately 89, according to a report from the county’s Children Youth and Family Services Division (CYFS).

Officials from CYFS, who work within the county Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), went to the board this month seeking funds to pay Racine County to hold up to 10 Milwaukee youth in their detention facility. Already, there are six youths from Milwaukee being held in Racine.

The proposal would have pulled $350,000 from the county’s contingency account. This requires a two-thirds vote to pass. It failed on a 9 to 7 vote, with Supervisors Peter Burgelis, Ryan Clancy, Juan Miguel Martinez, Steven Shea, Sequanna Taylor, Kathleen Vincent and Marcelia Nicholson voting against it.

Sup. Clancy led the charge against the proposal, arguing the county had no oversight or authority over the Racine detention facility and that some family members may not have transportation to get to Racine to visit their children. 

Clancy characterized the proposal before the board as providing “some temporary comfort for the opening of new beds; and knowing that this would mean more kids being put in more cages.”

CYFS officials have called it a temporary measure to relieve the overcrowding at the county detention center until the average census is consistently below 127. Officials also noted that state officials from the Department of Corrections urged them to move children to other facilities until the overcrowding had abated.

After the board’s vote, Kelly Pethke, CYFS administrator told Urban Milwaukee  the county will bring back all the youth in general population in Racine by Friday and that youth in a sentencing alternative to state-run youth prisons will have to go before a judge to determine where they will be placed.

The youth in this sentencing alternative program could be sent to state facilities like Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake; that will be up to the determination of a judge. As of early August, there were six Milwaukee youth at Racine’s detention center; five in general population and one in Racine’s Alternatives to Corrections Through Education program or ACE.

The ACE program is similar to the county’s own Milwaukee County Accountability Program (MCAP) in that it is a sentencing alternative to the state youth prisons. Currently, there is a waitlist of 13 youth for Milwaukee County’s program.

The Milwaukee County program has been at capacity for some time, with a steady waitlist. This has led some of the youth ordered to the program to later have their placement changed by the courts to state prisons, “because they can take the kids right now,” Pethke explained to the board in June.

Sup. Felesia Martin told her colleagues Thursday, “It is far better to have them in Racine than to have them at Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake.”

County officials at DHHS and CYFS have been working with the courts for years to reduce the number of children sent to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, with a goal of zero Milwaukee children in state-run youth prisons. Progress was being made until this year, when the number of children being sent to state facilities began to climb.

In December 2021, there were only 18 youth in state run facilities. As of early August, there were 44 boys at Lincoln Hills and four girls at Copper Lake.

In late 2021, when the county had a low youth population in state facilities, former CYFS administrator Mark Mertens said he was seeing “flashing red lights” at the county’s own youth detention facility which at the time was over-capacity. He explained that the county detention center was a “remarkably responsive place for youth” and that it had a “very robust education program,” but he was worried conditions would deteriorate with the overcrowding.

“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.

Speaking to her colleagues about the proposal to pay Racine to hold Milwaukee County Youth, Sup. Martin said she was finding it difficult to say yes to sending children to Racine, “But I also don’t want to see children on floors.”

After the board voted down the proposal from CYFS, Supervisors Willie Johnson, Jr. and Deanna Alexander alluded to the potential gravity of the vote; reminding their colleagues that there could be a motion to reconsider the proposal, but that it would require someone who voted it down to make it.

“Keep in mind that when something fails like this it cannot be considered for at least 90 days,” Johnson, Jr. said, “And during that time a lot of something is going to happen over at the Vel R. Phillips center.”

Board Approves Transferring Adult Inmates to Racine

After the board shot down a request to address overcrowding at the youth detention center, it approved a similar request from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) to pay the Racine County jail to detain people currently incarcerated at the overcrowded Milwaukee County Jail.

The jail has been regularly exceeding its legal capacity of 960 people, putting it in violation of a court-ordered consent decree that stems from a  lawsuit over constitutional violations and unsafe living conditions filed in 1996.

As Urban Milwaukee previously reported, officials from the Milwaukee County House of Correction (HOC) said the facility they oversee cannot safely accept anymore transfers from the county jail than they already do because of a severe staffing shortage.

The vote approving the contract with Racine County to take on some county jail inmates passed on a vote of 15 to two with Supervisors Clancy and Martinez voting against.

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