Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Committee Okays Racine Detention for Youthful Offenders

Board will reconsider agreement it opposed in September to pay for Racine facility.

By - Dec 12th, 2022 04:26 pm

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

Three months after the Milwaukee County Board voted it down, a proposal to transfer youth in detention to Racine County when the juvenile justice center in Milwaukee is overcrowded received a recommendation for approval last week.

The board’s Finance Committee voted to recommend approval of an agreement between Milwaukee and Racine County’s with only one supervisor, Peter Burgelis, voting against it.

Beginning in 2021, the population at the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center began climbing upward. In fall of that year, the county’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) signed a memorandum with Racine laying out each party’s responsibilities if the county ever needed to send youth there. It also set a ceiling of $99,000 in service fees before Milwaukee would need to seek board approval.

In December of 2021, former administrator of the county’s Division of Children Youth and Family Services (CYFS) Mark Mertens told the county board that he was seeing “flashing red lights” with the population at Vel Phillips and the number of youth being sent to the state youth prisons. By the end of 2022, the county saw the highest number of youth ordered to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake in four years.

The daily rate for juvenile detention in Racine is $325, or $540 for a post-sentencing program that serves as an alternative to incarcerating young people at the troubled state-run youth prisons at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. The Racine option is also much cheaper, less than half the rate for the two state prisons. Without an agreement between the counties, the courts will only be able to order young people to home confinement or the two state youth prisons, said Kelly Pethke, interim managing director of the Children Youth and Family Services division.

DHHS Director Shakita LaGrant-McClain recently told the Finance Committee that Racine was the only county in the area that had the capacity and staffing to take the youth.

By February 2022, the population at the 127-bed juvenile justice center went above 140, and youth were sleeping on rubber bed frames placed on the floor — called ‘boats’. In June the top jail inspector with the state Department of Corrections “strongly encouraged” county officials to move up to 10 youth to other detention facilities when the county’s was overcrowded. For most of the year, the facility has had a population of 120 or more young people.

In September, DHHS officials went to the board seeking approval to pay Racine the fees for the youth incarcerated there that had gone above $99,000. Without that approval, no more youth could be ordered there by the courts. The board voted it down, and during the same meeting approved a deal that allowed the Milwaukee County Sheriff‘s Office to do the same thing with adults in custody at the county jail, transferring them to the Racine facility when the Milwaukee facility is above its legal capacity.

After the board’s vote in September, all the young people who weren’t ordered to the incarceration alternative program under the 2021 agreement were brought back to Milwaukee. In October, the Milwaukee facility was once again over capacity.

Roughly one month later, the board included an amendment in the 2023 budget that allowed county officials to once again pursue an overcrowding agreement with Racine. That deal is again headed for the board’s final approval later this week.

“The other option for not sending youth to Racine when we’re over capacity will be to send them to Lincoln Hills,” LaGrant-McClain said, “and just to remind everyone that the daily rate for Lincoln Hills is $1,178 per day.”

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