Dane County is officially in the running to construct a regional detention facility for youth inmates after officials formally submitted an application to the state to house those with longer-term incarceration sentences.
The county has been preparing to update the downtown Juvenile Detention Center to accommodate these youth, including working with an architect to develop concept designs for a $3.5 million to $4.5 million project. Dane County Juvenile Court Administrator John Bauman submitted the application along with letters of support from several local officials to the Juvenile Corrections Grant Committee June 28.
“Dane County is excited about the opportunity to help improve Wisconsin’s juvenile correctional system as a part of a larger statewide plan that serves youth closer to their homes in smaller secure treatment facilities,” Bauman said in the letter.
In March 2018, former Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill authorizing the closure of the state-run youth prisons — Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma — which faced allegations of misconduct and abuse.
The state’s plan is to replace the youth prisons with smaller, regional facilities, an expanded youth treatment center at Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison and a few state-run facilities for youth who have committed more serious crimes.
As of the application deadline at noon Monday, the grant committee had received formal applications from Brown, Milwaukee and Racine counties in addition to Dane County.
Gov. Tony Evers on Friday signed a bill that would delay the closure of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake by six months and give counties more time to submit applications for replacement facilities and have them reviewed by lawmakers. The bill previously passed the Assembly and Senate last month.
Dane County’s plans include adding space on the west side of the City-County Building, next to the current facility on the second floor that contains various county offices. It also includes using a vacant housing pod in the detention center for an 18-bed program for boys and about five beds for girls.
Dane County included $3.96 million in the 2019 capital budget for renovations to the detention center, which would be mostly reimbursed by the state. In the application, officials said Dane County would need $4.5 million to safely budget for the project.
Staff at the detention center view the possibility of housing youth for longer periods of time as an opportunity for improved programming, like the addition of job training, and for greater family involvement.
Benjamin Gonring, the head of the juvenile unit in the Public Defender’s Office, submitted a letter of support for Dane County’s proposal. Gonring said the 175-mile distance from Irma, where Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are located, to Madison is a “disincentive” for families to visit their children.
“I am optimistic about the prospects of creating something local that, while adequately protecting the community, provides high quality treatment, keeps youth safe while in care and affords families the opportunity to play a meaningful role in the youth’s growth and development,” Gonring said in the letter.
Without any group homes or residential care centers in the county, juvenile judges have few options for youth in need of supervision. Judge Shelley Gaylord, the president juvenile judge in Dane County, underscored the need for support systems for youth in a letter of support.
“Outcomes are improved when the family and other informal support structures are strengthened,” Gaylord said in the letter. “That is far more difficult to accomplish when distance and travel are barriers.”
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Corrigan, Shawn Tessman, director of the Dane County Department of Human Services; Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and Greg Jones, the president of Dane County NAACP, also submitted letters of support.
Briana Reilly contributed to this report.