Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Youth Detention in Racine Approved

Supervisors quietly approve policy they previously rejected.

By - Dec 20th, 2022 04:41 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 ago the Milwaukee County Board blocked a deal between Racine and Milwaukee counties allowing Milwaukee to send youth to Racine’s detention center when its own facility was overcrowded. At the most recent board meeting, on December 15, the supervisors flipped on the issue, approving the deal without debate.

After several years of declining population numbers at Milwaukee’s Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center, the trend reversed in 2021 and by May of 2022 the facility had the highest population ever and it was short more than a dozen beds.

The deal before the board was an agreement to pay fees for the children who had already been moved to Racine during periods of overcrowding in 2022, and to allow the courts to continue to order children there. Once the cost of detaining the youth went above $99,000 the county’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) — which oversees youth detention — had to seek approval from the board.

In September, DHHS went to the board for that approval and it was narrowly denied on a 9-7 vote. At that same meeting the board approved a similar request from the Milwaukee County Sheriff‘s Office, which sought to send people to Racine’s jail as Milwaukee’s was regularly overcrowded. A month later, the youth detention center was again above its capacity.

Some of the children that were sent to Racine in 2022 went there on a court order. Racine operates a post-sentencing program offering education and behavioral therapy, which is viewed as an alternative to sending youth to one of the state’s troubled youth prisons at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. Without an agreement between the two counties the courts would not order children to Racine’s post-disposition program, and the only other alternative was secure detention is a state prison.

Milwaukee County runs an alternative-to-incarceration program much like Racine’s, but an ongoing waitlist means there’s nowhere for the children to go if the detention center is full and they can’t be ordered to Racine.

The second time this deal went before Supervisors, DHHS Director Shakita LaGrant-McClain said, bluntly, “The other option for not sending youth to Racine when we’re over capacity will be to send them to Lincoln Hills.” She also reminded supervisors that the cost charged to the county to incarcerate a juvenile in a state prison is two to three times what Racine charges for their detention center and their alternative-to-incarceration program.

While the board went into a lengthy debate about the policy in September before turning down the Racine deal, the proposal was not even commented on this time around. Instead, it was unanimously approved as part of a single vote on a handful of items before the board.

During the prior consideration, some supervisors expressed resignation about sending children further away from their families or that the board did not have direct oversight of the Racine facility. Sup. Ryan Clancy was a vocal opponent, stating the courts would simply incarcerate more children under the policy, saying it provided “some temporary comfort for the opening of new beds” but “would mean more kids being put in more cages.”

Other supervisors were not so persuaded. Sup. Felesia Martin told her colleagues, “It is far better to have them in Racine than to have them at Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake.”

By last week’s meeting, it appears, all the supervisors had come to agree with her view.

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