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Wisconsin plan to close youth prisons hits more snags as some counties pull back

Wisconsin plan to close youth prisons hits more snags as some counties pull back

Juvenile Detention Center (copy) (copy)

Dane County would expand an unused wing at the Juvenile Detention Center on the second floor of the City-County Building to use as a secure residential care center. 

A decision from Dane County officials last Friday to turn down state funding to establish a residential correctional facility will pump the brakes on a proposal to expand the juvenile detention center in downtown Madison.

Under the proposal, Dane County would have housed a state locked correctional facility at the site, located in the City County Building, which would have allowed youth with longer sentences to stay in the county. The plan also played a key role in a statewide directive to close two youth prisons and more broadly overhaul juvenile corrections.

But because of concerns over costs the county would incur and broader worries over the state’s commitment to improving juvenile corrections, Dane County decided to put off the local expansion push for now. 

In Dane County, where there are no secure residential care centers or group homes, juvenile judges have been left with few options for youth in need of secure supervision. And based on the county’s recent decision, as well as broader uncertainty in the statewide process, those options will remain limited going forward. 

“The unfortunate thing is our kids aren’t able to be in the community for those that need that level of temporary, secure placement,” Dane County Juvenile Court Administrator John Bauman said. “As of now and for the foreseeable future, they’re going to need to continue to go to Lincoln Hills.”  

Dane was one of four Wisconsin counties on track to operate juvenile facilities that would, in part, replace the state’s troubled youth prisons in Irma in adherence to a bipartisan law enacted under former Gov. Scott Walker. But last week, the Department of Corrections said Brown, Dane and Milwaukee officials pushed pause on their involvement, though a spokesman said they “expressed some level of desire to continue collaboration on a youth justice project like this in the future.” 

[For juvenile detention, pandemic brings changes, delays and chance to ‘rethink’]

The move is the latest roadblock in the state’s push to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons by summer 2021, a timeline that was already thrown into doubt earlier this year when the Legislature’s powerful budget committee pared down dollars for the counties and declined to fund two state-run “Type 1” facilities for more severe youth offenders. Before then, officials at the state and local levels struggled to meet deadlines and stay within budget on their proposals.  

Also left unresolved is a key component of youth corrections: implementing an expanded youth treatment center at Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison. That reality, paired with the latest developments this month, make it increasingly unlikely Wisconsin will be able to meet its statutorily-imposed deadline to shutter the two prisons. 

“It’s going to be very unlikely they’re going to be able to close Lincoln Hills anytime soon unless there are additional secure placements somewhere,” Bauman said. 

Dane County plans 

Bauman outlined several concerns with the grant funding program which led to the county pausing the program at the end of February. Concerns over costs have been “amplified, magnified” by the coronavirus pandemic, he said. 

Bauman said the county would have potentially assumed increased costs associated with additional staff and medical care for youth. In addition to the lack of funding for “Type 1” facilities, the Joint Finance Committee didn’t take up the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center expansion, which he said contributed to the county’s hesitation.  

[Future of Mendota Mental Health expansion uncertain, awaits final approval from lawmakers]

Also, he pointed to the proposed Republican-sponsored crime bills this session that included one to expand the types of crimes juveniles could be incarcerated for to include actions that would be felonies if committed by adults, a bill that was vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers after it passed both chambers. 

“The commitment to truly making positive changes to juvenile corrections is a concern,” Bauman said.  

Since submitting its application last July, the county planned the entire expansion, including the type of carpet and wall coverings. But Bauman is confident the plans won’t go “stale.” 

“The plans are there and are solid and could be used in the future,” Bauman said.

The county included about $3.96 million in its 2019 capital budget for the expansion project and has used approximately $165,995 for the design phase. Bauman said the rest of the funding, which has not been borrowed yet by the county, could be removed or carried forward into the 2021 budget.   

To participate in the state’s grant program in the future, Bauman said the state would need to move forward with the smaller facilities and the expansion of Mendota in addition to holding a conversation with counties about the financial risks they would incur.  

“We have a financial obligation to the taxpayers as well as the kids we serve,” Bauman said. 

He hopes there will be future discussions about the lack of options for Dane County youth who have longer incarceration sentences and the possibility of developing a locked treatment center on county-owned property.

In the meantime, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Shelley Gaylord said judges will continue to use out-of-county group homes and residential care centers inside and outside of Wisconsin as well as Lincoln Hills, where 13 youth from Dane County are placed as of Monday, per Bauman. 

While there had been a moratorium on transfers to the two youth prisons due to the COVID-19 crisis, Gaylord said it has since been lifted, though some precautions remain in place. 

“The funding issue was critical to the viability of the plan for a local, secure [residential care center] and the closing of [the youth prisons] with a new secure statewide facility,” she wrote in an email, adding: “The need for a local, secure [residential care center] remains.”

Statewide ramifications

Long before this month, state and county officials worried the timeline for closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake was unworkable. 

Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr told reporters in February after the Joint Finance Committee failed to move forward on funding “Type 1” sites for more severe youth offenders that “it’s very unlikely” the prisons could close by July 1, 2021. 

Around the same time, Bauman said delays and uncertainty in the process up to that point had meant there were “no guarantees” that Dane County would “absolutely” take the money and expand and operate its planned facility. 

But after the Friday deadline for localities to accept state awards to build residential care centers passed and just Racine County accepted, the future is more uncertain than ever. 

Sharlen Moore, a past member of the state’s Juvenile Corrections Grant Committee that reviewed counties’ proposals for the sites, said the state had to return to a conversation about directing resources and money for alternatives to incarceration. 

In the early days of the committee's work, members approved a "Wisconsin model of juvenile justice" that called for focusing on prevention and diversion, prioritizing evidence-based practices in regional facilities, promoting a system in which state and local officials work together to up effectiveness, prioritizing the transition of youth from the system upon their reentry and more. 

"Even though a lot of work has been put in, we are a far cry from where we need to be," she said. "We can definitely take this as a moment and say 'How do we hit the pause button in a good way so we can use this moment and this opportunity to do things right?'" 

At the county level, Brown and Milwaukee officials both pointed to unknown operational support levels and further cost concerns in their letters to DOC Friday. 

Milwaukee County Executive Dave Crowley, noting officials were on track to get $8.4 million less from the state than what they had sought, said even with their new scaled-back plan, the county would need to invest $2.7 million of its own funds to cover the gap. That, plus “continued uncertainty over the availability of resources to realize the full vision” of the law, means the county is deferring grant acceptance for now, Crowley wrote. 

“We continue to actively listen to our community and must reassess whether there is a desire to invest increasingly scarce resources into bricks and mortar rather than reformative and rehabilitative programs and services,” he added. “For this reason, we plan to undertake additional public engagement to explore the best possible solutions which promote the success of our youth and are also fiscally feasible and sustainable.” 

In Brown County, which was poised to get nearly $41 million from the state for its plan, Health & Human Services Executive Director Erik Pritzl wrote in his letter to DOC that said while officials still intend to be involved in the construction and operation of a center, they haven’t received an agreement that aligns with the resolution the local Board of Supervisors passed outlining the scope of the project.

The resolution states an agreement needs clarity on actual construction and operational costs, an understanding of how ownership of the facility’s land would work and a determination of what the state’s commitment to the county would be “going forward regarding any potential future operational losses,” per the letter. 

“We want to continue, we want to talk with DOC, we want to work out these issues of the agreement, but right now, we received an agreement that we couldn’t present to our county board meeting those three requirements,” Pritzl said in an interview. 

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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