New superintendent at Wisconsin youth prison hired (copy)

The Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls. 

The number of kids arrested and held in juvenile correctional institutions has been steadily declining in Wisconsin.

That’s the good news, according to a recent report from Race to Equity, a project of Kids Forward. The bad news? African-American youth are three times as likely and American Indians almost twice as likely as white youth to be arrested in Wisconsin in 2016.

The report, “The Complex Maze of the Juvenile Justice System in Wisconsin and Its Impact on Youth of Color,” doesn’t stop with the problem. There are opportunities to change the system, it says, through both major legislative reform and community action.

Altogether, the state’s youth justice system has seen improvement, the report says. Since 2002, the number of youth arrests for violent crimes and youth waived into adult court has dropped significantly, by 48 and 72 percent respectively.

Other improvements:

  • The state houses far fewer juveniles. In 2002, there was an average daily population of 866 youth in juvenile correctional institutions. That number had dropped to 227 by 2016.
  • The rate of arrests per 1,000 youth aged 10 to 17 dropped from 187 arrests to 72 arrests over that same time period.

But while arrest rates and youth commitments are declining, they’re falling faster for white youth. From 2003 to 2013, racial and ethnic disparities in youth justice increased significantly, the report says.

African-American youth were 8.2 times as likely as white youth to be committed to juvenile facilities in 2003, but 15 times as likely to be committed in 2013.

Other disparities include:

  • In 2016, there were 57 arrests per 1,000 white youth, 99 arrests per every 1,000 American Indian youth, and 193 arrests per every 1,000 African-American youth.
  • In 2016, African-American youth aged 10 to 16 made up 47 percent of the population in juvenile detention facilities, although the demographic accounts for just 10 percent of Wisconsin’s youth population.

The report emphasized that the disparities do not exist because youth of color engage in more criminal behavior. Instead, the report pointed to contributing factors like racial bias, where offenses are located, and “differential police policies and practices,” among others.

A few examples: When police target low-income, urban neighborhoods, that can lead to “disproportionate contact with youth of color,” it says. Even though white youth are at least equally likely to sell or use illegal drugs, they’re arrested at half the rate of African-American youth. On those same lines, youth of color are more likely to use and sell drugs in public places, while white youth engage in those same illicit activities in the privacy of their homes. When victims of crime are white, they “disproportionately perceive their offenders to be youth of color.”

The report doesn’t break data down by county. Erica Nelson, Race to Equity director, said she believes Dane County data would also show ongoing disparities. According to the 2017 Madison Police Department annual report, black youth made up 67 percent of juvenile arrests.

Nelson also pointed to “good, robust restorative justice programs” in the area like the TimeBank's Youth Court Program, YWCA restorative justice programs and Dane County Community Restorative Court, as well as work by grassroots organizations like Freedom, Inc., and Dane County’s juvenile justice services manager, Andre Johnson.

And while the report presents the problems, it also advocates for change.

“We are presented right now with an opportunity to reform the system,” Nelson said. “Yes we have a challenge, but yes, we have an opportunity.”

One opportunity for reform comes with the closing of Lincoln Hills, Nelson said. Wisconsin's juvenile prison — the Lincoln Hills School for boys and Copper Lake School for girls — carried a history of of prisoner abuse, violent incidents and prisoner unrest.

The report praised the bill, passed this spring, that will close Lincoln Hills and send youth to smaller, regional facilities, but it further suggested looking to juvenile justice system models in other states. The end of Lincoln Hills provides an opportunity for discussion, Nelson said.

“How are we going to do youth justice different going forward? How are we going to apply a racial justice equity lens to it?” Nelson said. “This is an opportunity to come together and think about investing more in mental health for youth.”

It’s also a time to ask about prevention, trauma-informed care and a rehabilitative, rather than punitive approach, she said.

The report also advocates for the Wisconsin’s Second Chance Bill. In Wisconsin, 17-year-old offenders are tried as adults, and the bill would return them to the juvenile justice system.

There are many benefits to this move, the report said, like reducing recidivism and lowering the frequency offender suicide and self-harm for 17-year-olds.

However, the report points to some problems with the current conditions of the bill, as violent and repeat offenders would still be considered adults by the courts. The bill could worsen disparities by sending a higher rate of kids of color to the adult criminal system, especially as a disproportionate number of youth of color are arrested multiple times. 

There are many ways to improve the youth justice system, like changing school policies, health care and data collection, Nelson said, but many fall “within the realm of policymakers.”

To that end, a separate Kids Forward Initiative, “Race to the Polls,” launched this week. The movement asks participants to sign a pledge, dedicating their support to voting in the midterm elections for “candidates who will prioritize racial justice.”

“Race matters in how we’re thinking about who we’re voting for,” Nelson said. “I think we should be asking our politicians, ‘Are you putting a racial equity lens on the policies you are promoting?’”

Youth justice is one such topic that deserves a racial lens, Nelson said.

The movement wants voters to think and talk about race as they go to the polls. It will create questions for voters to ask their candidates, provide research and host online space for conversations.

“Often candidates kind of shy away from speaking directly to or about communities of color,” said Wenona Wolf, communication and development manager at Kids Forward, and both parties could be doing a better job. 

The movement doesn’t end with the election cycle, Wolf said; after that, it’s about holding politicians accountable to what they’ve promised.

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