The Joint Committee on Finance. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
The battle for criminal justice reform in Wisconsin continued Wednesday at the Joint Finance Committee (JCF), with a looming planned closing date of July 1, 2021 for the state’s notorious juvenile detention facilities at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, near Irma. Six facilities had been planned to replace the embattled facilities, accused of child abuse and neglect, using solitary confinement and creating an unsafe workplace for guards and teachers. But the JFC, however, only approved four of the replacement facilities.
The committee voted along party lines, approving $102 million for four new centers run by Brown, Milwaukee, Dane and Racine counties. But it rejected the Department of Corrections request for another $73 million for state-run facilities in Milwaukee and Outagamie counties, which would house more serious offenders, including some of the youth currently detained at Lincoln Hills.
The county detention facilities could house up to 100 juveniles, but without the two state facilities, that would leave 60 children stuck at Lincoln Hills.
“Geographical location is the problem,” Department Of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr told Wisconsin Examiner. “We don’t have the resources up there to hire the right staff, whether it’s teachers, and correctional officers, and social works, and other folks. We don’t have cultural diversity there, they’re [the incarcerated youth are] about four hours away from their families.”
These higher security buildings that did not receive funding would have been Type 1 juvenile correctional facilities, along the lines of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. Similar to adult correctional compounds, Type 1 facilities have security, fences, surveillance and other means to restrict the freedom and privacy of detainees. This is how they differ from Type 2 facilities, which are sometimes described as institutions without walls geared toward rehabilitating youth for their return to the community.
Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake were the subject of Act 185 in 2017, which mandated the closure of the facilities by 2021. They’ve gained a reputation — and even been investigated by the FBI — over the years for violence. That environment has had a profoundly negative impact on both the children detained there, and the staff monitoring their detention.
Not surprisingly, the decision to cut funding for a facility in Milwaukee for currently incarcerated juveniles in Milwaukee sparked partisan outrage and condemnation.
Rep. Evan Goyke (D- Milwaukee) said the facilities represent, “a model of juvenile incarceration that doesn’t work.” Shutting them down, however, is complicated by the question of where all the youth go from there. Breaking the centralized detention compounds into smaller facilities closer to the youth’s communities appeared as a viable solution.
“If we do less than this plan, we will not have the facilities and the capacity statewide to actually realize the closure of Lincoln Hills,” said Goyke, of the plan before the JFC. Proposals for smaller more localized facilities have been submitted by Racine, Brown, Dane and Milwaukee County. Goyke took issue with alternative county funding plans created by Republicans, which would fund all those facilities, with the exception of Milwaukee.
Goyke criticized them for this move, “despite everyone understanding that Milwaukee County has the highest number of kids in the system, is the largest county in the state and is an area where we need these facilities. It’s actually the last place, the last of the counties, which should be asked to do more with less.”
Milwaukee has been at the center of partisan warfare in Wisconsin for years, and the debate over closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake is no different.
“This is the thing that irritates me the absolute most about this body, and about politics in general,” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) “Everything comes down to party lines. This has nothing to do with two Democrats fighting on our side or us needing to get our stuff together. This has to do with Copper Lake and Lincoln Hill being the only Type 1 facility in this state, and it was an epic fail. When children lose toes, when they are put in confinement for months at a time — that’s an epic fail.” Johnson added, stressing that this was a failure which, “happened on our watch.”
As the debate waged on, Democrats avoided referring to the youth as anything other than children. They discussed children, ids who due to a decision to cut Milwaukee’s funding, are left to languish in compounds oftentimes hours from their homes.
Wisconsin’s juvenile correctional system, under Act 185, requires Type 1 facilities. Without alternatives, Goyke stressed, “then the juveniles, the kids in our community that are in state custody, will remain at Lincoln Hills and that facility will remain open.” He noted that Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are some of the largest juvenile prisons of their kind left in the country. “Those families, those kids in our communities deserve better,” said Goyke.
“You can’t say you’re committed to closing Lincoln Hills and not fund the alternative,” said Rep. Chris Taylor (D- Madison). “I’ve seen these kids. I’ve talked to them, I’ve listened to them. You know, there are kids up there who don’t get one visitor! Not one person is coming to see them, and you’re fine with that?”
She spoke directly to her Republican JCF colleagues in a scolding, angered tone. “If you’re okay with that you haven’t been there, and that’s part of the problem that’s going on here. There is no way that you can go up to that facility, and see those children, and think that you are doing right by them. You are not! You are failing them, and you’re choosing to fail them. And you chose this when you eliminated $90 million that this governor allocated.”
Compounding the issue are the Republicans’ new package of “Tougher on Crime” bills, one of which increases the number of felonies which could land a youth in juvenile incarceration. “It’s not a priority for you to save those children,” said Taylor. “Go up there and look these kids in the eye and talk to them about what their lives have been.”
Her rebuttal provoked the ire of Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), co-chair of the JCF and an author of some of the Tougher on Crime package bills.
“Honestly I think you missed the boat,” said Darling to Taylor, stating that $80 million is being invested in other programs which could provide mental health treatment to over 100 youth and get them closer to home. “These offenders need to be closer to home,” said Darling, “so there could be people to visit them. …We’re not talking about forgetting about these children, or these offenders.”
Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chair of the JCF, said that residents in some of those communities didn’t want Type 1 facilities near their neighborhoods. When sites were proposed in Milwaukee, discontent from residents and local business owners seemed unanimous. “The roll out of these site selections sparked a great deal of blow back from both communities that have been proposed to have one of these facilities in their area,” said Nygren, citing a similar reaction in Hortonia Wisconsin, the location of the other facility. “The response was described, in the media, as ‘overwhelmingly negative,’” said Nygren, of the Hortonia outrage.
Moving forward, Nygren expressed a hope that the process would be transparent for local residents. He summed up this conflict with Democrats as little more than political tribalism. “I am not going to fault you for standing up for your governor, but you have to be concerned about what has been done and the lack of communication with local units of government throughout the entire state,” said Nygren. “You’d think you’d be voting for us, but I realize that you’re going to make another decision for probably political reasons today.”
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