Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections says it has changed how agency officials communicate with counties statewide following allegations of abuse and misconduct at Lincoln Hills, the state’s highest security prison for boys.
The department said it changed its notification policy last month and now directs staff at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile facilities to more thoroughly document injuries and disciplinary actions against children, said Jeff Grothman, director of legislative affairs for the Division of Juvenile Corrections at DOC.
The new policy requires staff to notify the child’s home county if the child is involved in serious incidents, including being put in confinement or when force is used against the child by staff. It also requires staff to record the date and time of the notification, who was contacted and whether the employee reached the parent or a county official, Grothman said in an email.
Since records of abuse surfaced at Lincoln Hills last year, DOC has been more proactive in updating counties about what is going on there, said Andre Johnson, juvenile justice services manager for the Dane County Department of Human Services.
DOC officials met with judges and county juvenile justice officials to dispel rumors that school classes were not being taught and other treatment programs had been discontinued, Johnson said. The department has assured the county that those allegations are not true, he said, and has sent more alerts about incidents involving inmates from Dane County.
“It’s a brief, kind of an initial report, [saying] 'here something happened,'" he said. “They’re sending a wider group of those now.”
Dane County is not seeking to transfer the 16 inmates its judges have ordered to Lincoln Hills. It has not gotten any reports of abuse from the children who are there, said Johnson, though he added county officials are “definitely keeping a closer eye.” The county has had a part-time liaison to work with children and families who are sentenced to Lincoln Hills for more than 15 years, Johnson said.
Milwaukee County officials have said they plan to pull their 134 inmates from Lincoln Hills, which would cut the facility's population by more than half. Removing children from the state juvenile prison is a case-by-case process. A county juvenile judge must review each child’s case and change the sentencing order.
Dane County has no secure facility for juveniles, said John Bauman, juvenile court administrator for the county.
“Dane County traditionally sends very few kids to Lincoln Hills,” he said.
Juvenile offenders are sentenced to Lincoln Hills as a last option only after they have gone through other service providers and placements but continue to “engage in behavior that is harmful to the public” Bauman said.
The numbers of children Dane County has sent to the state’s highest security juvenile justice facility has dwindled over the last 10 years. The trend mirrors a nationwide decline as states increasingly favor locally-based treatment and rehabilitation programs over traditional confinement.
“The rate of juveniles arrested has dropped now for about 20 years straight, which is unprecedented,” said Jim Moeser, deputy director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families and a former juvenile court administrator for Dane County, who has also worked at DOC. “I keep wondering where the bottom is and that keeps getting lower.”
From 2014 to 2015, referrals for African American youth in Dane County decreased from 536 to 483, a 9.9 percent drop, according to the county.
Hispanic children who are referred into the juvenile detention system decreased slightly during that same period from 58 to 52, a 10.3 percent decline, according to the county. Referrals for white juveniles increased from 266 in 2014 to 299 in 2015 — a 12.4% increase.
Several advocacy and research groups who track juvenile justice issues report that the number of juveniles in detention or residential correction facilities has steadily decreased over the last two decades.
In 2013, the most recent year data was available, there were more than 54,000 children in detention facilities nationwide, according to the Annie E. Casey foundation, a national charity and advocacy group that researches juvenile justice issues.
That number is down from the 60,426 children who were in detention facilities in 2007, and 75,406 children in detention in 1997, representing a 28 percent decline over 16 years.
Moeser, Dane County officials and national juvenile justice groups attribute the decline to a variety of factors, including less charging for minor crimes and a preference for regional county-run programs.
Several counties offer comprehensive programs at their short term facilities, but there is no state regulatory scheme governing the facilities.
“The complete absence of standards or requirements related to it is troublesome,” Moeser said.
Most local detention centers were created for short term stays, but changes in the law over the last five years are increasingly allowing kids to be sentenced to short-term facilities for up to a year, Moeser said.
“For the most part, yes, kids are being left in there longer,” he said. “The statute is completely unclear about any standards or length of time.”
Since 2011 the Legislature has incrementally increased the limit on stays in short term juvenile detention facilities, lifting the longstanding 30-day cap to 180 days in 2011 and 365 days in 2013. The law does not offer direction on appropriate lengths of stay at the facilities, nor require that counties offer education, recreation or healthcare programs.
“It’s sort of a completely unregulated component of the system,” Moeser said. “They’re geared towards basic safety. It’s one thing to send a kid there for one week, two weeks. It’s another to send a kid there for six months.”
Counties across the state that are offering programs are largely averse to new statewide regulations, Moeser said. But because juveniles can be sentenced to a short term facility outside of their home county, the lack of rules creates wide disparities.
There are 13 short-term detention facilities for juveniles in Wisconsin and six offer education and healthcare to varying degrees. LaCrosse, Milwaukee, Rock, Eau Claire, Racine and Fond du Lac counties all offer some type of programming, Moeser said.
Most do not offer basic dental care, Moeser said, a particular need for juvenile inmates.
“We would get kids at detention who had never been to a dentist and they’re 15 years old,” he said.
Wisconsin is one of nine states to significantly reduce its juvenile prison population, according to reports by the National Juvenile Justice Network, an association of state-based juvenile justice reform organizations, founded in 2005.
The group lauded Wisconsin in a 2013 report as a national leader for decreasing the number of children in juvenile detention facilities. According to the report, the number of youth confined in the state peaked in 2000, increasing to 1,271 from 667 in 1985. In 2001, the numbers of children locked up began to decrease and has declined ever since, from 1,272 in 2001 to 583 in 2010, a 41 percent decline.
The report attributes the decrease to the state’s adoption of policies that divert children away from secure detention facilities, and reduction of incarceration for minor offenses and the increasing use of treatment and rehabilitative programs.