Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Hits 4-Year High of Youth in State Prisons

On track for highest number sentenced to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake since 2018.

By - Nov 28th, 2022 07:17 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.

Milwaukee County has seen more than 50 youth sent to state juvenile prisons in 2022 for the first time since 2018.

The latest report on youth correctional placements from the county’s Department of Children, Youth and Family Services (CYFS) shows 52 children were ordered into the custody of state facilities at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake as of early November.

The report, dated Nov. 15, shows six youth were ordered to state facilities since September, the last time the Milwaukee County Board was briefed on placements. The majority were ordered there under the Serious Juvenile Offender Program that covers youth who have been adjudicated by the courts to have committed significant crimes including homicide, sexual assault and firearm-related crimes among others.

As of the report, there were 38 boys from the county currently incarcerated at Lincoln Hills and two girls at Copper Lake. Twelve youth had by then been released or transitioned to house monitoring.

The county has been trying for several years to bring the number of children incarcerated at state facilities down, with the long-term goal being zero Milwaukee children in state-run prisons. The county first began to see progress on this front beginning in 2016, when the annual number of Milwaukee children in these facilities began to go down year over year.

That trend continued until 2021, which was the best year the county had seen with only 32 youth sentenced to state facilities. Officials were hopeful at that point that they could eventually reduce the number of children in state facilities down to zero. Instead, at the very end of 2021 these trends began to reverse.

The increasing population in the state facilities has also impacted a number of preventive and community-oriented youth justice programs the county was administering. The state charges the county $1,178 a day for every child held in one of their juvenile prisons. The county did not budget, at the end of 2021, for the numbers they would see in 2022. The budget for 2023 cut funding for the county’s community programs to pay for higher expected costs of state incarceration.

The juvenile justice system in general has seen the number of youth coming in contact with it increase since the start of the pandemic. The county’s Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Facility experienced higher populations, often exceeding the facility’s capacity, in 2022 than it ever had. The courts were referring more children there on serious charges pending a trial and the average length of their detentions was getting longer. David Muhammad, deputy director of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), said many children in detention were facing charges for “auto theft and gun violence and those types of things that we know have only been exacerbated because of the pandemic.”

The Vel Phillips facility is a pre-trial facility similar to the Milwaukee County Jail, but it’s also the home of the county’s alternative to incarceration program. The program allows courts to keep children in secure detention in Milwaukee County after they’ve been sentenced, and it includes a shorter period of incarceration, therapy and a transition back to their community. The program has had a waiting list all year.

In September, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors debated a proposal from CYFS that would have formalized an agreement with Racine County to allow Milwaukee to send children to the Racine detention facility when Vel Phillips was overcrowded. The board voted it down at the same meeting it approved a similar contract for adults in the jail. An amendment to the 2023 budget will allow county officials to pursue the policy in the event of overcrowding.

In October, Kelly Pethke, CYFS administrator, told Urban Milwaukee there were three Milwaukee children in Racine’s own incarceration-alternative program. Placements to that program, which is a sentencing alterative to state prisons, were halted after the board voted down the contract with Racine in September, Pethke said, but the three children ordered there before the county board’s action were allowed to remain. The Racine program costs the county less than 50% of what incarceration in a state prison does.

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