Some afternoons, youth held at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center practice playing chess.
On other days, they work with local artists painting murals or receive a visit from Dogs on Call. Once a week, some of the youth prepare lunches that have included chicken and waffles, spaghetti and meatballs, and biscuits and gravy.
Youth held in the detention center, located on the second floor of the City-County Building, are mandated by state law to receive a minimum of six hours per day of structured group or individual activities, which can include education. Juvenile Detention Superintendent Ed Pearson said youth under his care receive well above the requirement.
With this variety of enrichment opportunities, “We’ve already tested the boundaries of our short-term detention,” Pearson said.
As Dane County prepares to upgrade the detention center into a regional facility that would house youth with lengthier incarceration sentences, Pearson is thinking about the potential for longer-term programming.
Currently, detention center activities are designed to accommodate youth who may be held for a limited amount of time, typically while they await the outcome of their case. In 2018, the average length of stay at the detention center was about 10 days, three more than in 2017. In 2018, an average of 13 youth, including youth from other counties, stayed at the detention center on a given day.
If the state selects Dane County to run what it is calling a secure residential care center, Dane County would be able to offer long-term programming to help youth re-enter the community.
“Their permanent placement is back home,” Pearson said. “They have to be slowly integrated.”
The decision to run a residential care center and what one could potentially look like would also be contingent on approval from the Dane County Board of Supervisors and Executive Joe Parisi.
Now, Pearson takes advantage of local resources, including groups from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Madison Public Library’s Bubbler program.
“It would be embarrassing to have all of these services that are free, that are close and not take advantage,” Pearson said.
With the new model, he envisions programming like in-depth employment training and privileges that would allow youth held for longer periods of time to work in the community. It is easier to conform in a secure facility, but adjusting to regular life in the community is more difficult, Pearson said.
“You learn a lot about where a kid is at by putting them outside of the building,” he said.
If a youth in custody breaks a rule while in the community, that is yet another learning experience. “Trial and error,” Pearson said. “That’s part of rehabilitation, making mistakes, correcting and learning from them."
Counties in the running
When former Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill in March 2018 authorizing the closure of the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma, which faced allegations of misconduct and abuse, Dane County got involved.
“Once it became clear it wasn’t going to be a state-run operation, then it made sense for us to actively start discussing how Dane County could serve our kids and some kids from surrounding counties,” Juvenile Court Administrator John Bauman said.
The bill would close the prison by Jan. 1, 2021, and replace it 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.
Lawmakers are considering making changes to the timeline for closing the state's youth prisons and establishing new county- and state-run facilities. The new legislation would push the deadline to close the prison back six months to July 1, 2021.
It would also give counties interested in operating a facility more time to submit grant applications to the state's Juvenile Corrections Grant Committee.
After it receives and reviews applications, members of the grant committee then have to submit a funding plan to the Legislature's budget committee. The new bill would tweak that timeline as well.
Dane, Milwaukee, Racine and Brown counties are interested in running a facility. Fond du Lac officially dropped out of the process, and La Crosse officials have indicated they will not pursue the process further.
Republican Rep. Michael Schraa, Oshkosh, and Sen. Van Wanggaard, Racine, told reporters last week the $80 million in funding available for the counties’ facilities would be enough for three, likely in Milwaukee, Dane and Racine counties.
Bauman said Dane County is in an optimal place to operate a secure residential care center due to its proximity to resources and services. Unlike in Milwaukee and Racine, Dane County has an existing structure that can be remodeled instead of building a new facility from the ground up.
Additionally, detention center staff likely have an existing relationship with many of the youth. Almost any Dane County youth ordered to correctional placement has been through the detention facility for previous charges, Bauman said.
“We’re going to know the kids,” he said.
If Dane County operates a residential care center, youth in detention who are ordered to corrections would change programs without transferring to a different facility.
Preparing for expansion
In preparation for the closure of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and the shift in responsibility to counties, Dane County is evaluating how it can expand the detention center to house these youth.
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. The state bill will fund up to 95% of the male facilities and 100% of the cost for the girls’ facilities.
John Cain, an architect with Milwaukee-based Venture Architects, has been working with the county to develop concept designs. On June 6, the Dane County Board approved a $264,000 contract with Venture Architects, which specializes in corrections, for architectural and engineering design services.
“We now have a new program being developed that is still kind of in its infancy,” Cain said. “It’s a new model for Wisconsin, and it’s being driven by a lot of practical reasons, not the least of which is the closure of Lincoln Hills and bringing the kids close to home.”
Cain said the current space’s positive attributes include an open space, programming and dedicated staff.
“Dane has a great facility now, a great staff, great physical plant, and what we’re doing is simply taking advantage of both staff and spaces they’ve got,” Cain said.
Dane County’s plans include adding space on the west side of the building next to the current facility that contains various county offices. It also includes using a vacant housing pod for an 18-bed program for boys and a four-bed program for girls.
Youth from Dane County would occupy between 12 and 14 male beds and three and four female beds at any given time, allowing bed space for residents from surrounding counties.
According to a recent Department of Corrections report, an average of more than 5% of youth in state custody came from Dane County between 2014 and 2018. Though that is the second highest, it was far behind the 56% youth in state custody who came from Milwaukee County over the same period.
Bauman said he recognizes the concern of “widening the net” — adding beds that would result in more incarcerated youth. Maintaining a limited amount of beds can help mitigate that concern and pressure the juvenile justice system to rely on corrections as a last resort, he said.
“As a system, we really have to be diligent and not have youth placed here who, if it weren't for the program, wouldn’t be placed here in a locked environment,” Bauman said.
A major challenge will be constructing an outdoor space, a requirement of the state.
The City-County Building has a flat roof over a portion of the first floor that faces West Wilson Street. Cain said if the area is determined to be structurally sound, the county could extend the width of the area. The space would also need to be screened in for the inmates’ privacy.
“We have this delightful design challenge to design a space that is outdoors, but you can’t see into it,” Cain said.
Any exterior changes must get city approval as they would involve alterations to the exterior of a building.
A logistical challenge includes maintaining separation between short- and long-term stay youth. Some functions of the detention center can be used at the same time, including visitation, medical space and dining. Others, like recreational and programming spaces, the kitchen and classrooms, can be shared but not at the same time.
Bauman said he expects to add an additional 14 staff members for daily care, two social worker positions and four supervisors. Additional staff for clinical services may also be needed.
Probable costs for the proposed design range form $3.5 million to $4.5 million, Bauman said in a letter of interest to the Juvenile Corrections Grant Committee March 29. While the capital costs would be mostly covered by the state, the operational expenses would be the responsibility of the counties.
Dane County currently pays the state a total of about $145,000 per year for youth who are housed in correctional facilities. Under the new model, the county would keep that funding.
Under the new model, the county would also receive $750,000 in a youth aids bonus payment from the state. Counties that accept youth from other counties would be eligible for the money. Dane County would also receive a daily rate for youth from other counties.
Dane County would have to pay the state a daily rate if youth would need to be placed at a facility outside of the county, at one of the new state-run facilities for youth who have committed more serious crimes or at Mendota.
“I’m hopeful that there will be a balancing of the expenditures and the revenue,” Bauman said.
Pearson, the detention center administrator, previously worked in juvenile corrections in Missouri and brings tenets of the “Missouri model” to his work with Dane County youth.
In Missouri, juvenile corrections was divided into four regions of the state that have different levels of supervision. Each region also has a day treatment center, so youth are not sent far from home.
Because of that, Pearson said families were very involved. He said the lack of family involvement is one of “Wisconsin’s weakest areas.” Irma is about 175 miles away from Madison, which makes it difficult for families, especially those without reliable transportation, to visit.
Also in Missouri, Pearson said youth were treated in smaller groups that utilized the restorative justice model and required family counseling sessions.
Dane County’s philosophy with juvenile detention is to provide the least restrictive setting and utilize evidence-based practices.
“We don't look at ourselves as a juvenile jail. We look at ourselves as an educational facility,” Pearson said. “Hopefully with the new building, we would be a therapeutic educational facility.”
Looking toward the future secure care center, Pearson said he is most excited for the involvement of community, parents and caregivers.
“Here’s the deal: we treat families. We don’t treat kids,” Pearson said.
Briana Reilly contributed to this report.