Throughout his tenure, Gov. Scott Walker ignored deep systemic failures throughout Wisconsin’s youth justice system. His Department of Corrections never developed an adequate response to the crisis at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, and even attempted to cover up persistent allegations of child abuse.
Under Gov. Walker, Wisconsin incarcerated African-Americans at the highest rate in the country, spending nearly $2.5 billion on prisons and corrections, with a robust pipeline that sweeps up young people who should not be there. With such a biased system, it’s no surprise that Act 185, the legislation championed by Walker to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, does not go far enough to reform our justice system.
With only a few weeks remaining in the transition before Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Lt. Gov.-elect Mandela Barnes are sworn in, there’s an opportunity to amend that legislation, stop the construction of new youth prisons and outdated, ineffective brick-and-mortar facilities, and create a more just system for our state.
Right now, under Act 185, Wisconsin is set to build new youth prisons — a major step backward after the achievement of closing Lincoln Hills. Instead, we should reinvest in our communities.
The flaws in the post-Lincoln Hills justice system under Act 185 are a result of ignoring input of the communities most impacted by the bill: young people and families who have been touched by the youth justice system. Their vision for a better system could not be clearer: Instead of new youth prisons, or “Type 1” secure facilities and Secure Residential Care Centers for Children and Youth (SRCCCYs), which will cost millions in construction for building new facilities despite proven ineffectiveness, we need investment in community-based alternatives to locking kids up.
Gov. Walker only made youth justice a priority when it became clear Lincoln Hills could be a political liability for his re-election — and he just may have been right. Throughout their campaign, Evers and Barnes made criminal justice reform a priority. That hit a chord with our community: Milwaukee turnout was some of the highest ever for a midterm — up to 73 percent compared to 65 percent in the 2014 midterms. Eighty-five percent of black voters overwhelmingly cast their ballot for Evers, and young people came out for Evers: 58 percent of 18- to 44-year-olds voted for him over Walker.
In contrast to Walker, Evers and Barnes have been allies in efforts to reform youth justice in Wisconsin. Barnes even worked with the Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope, a founding and current Youth Justice Milwaukee coalition member. They also campaigned on addressing criminal justice reform.
This is a chance to make good on their promises.
Act 185 set a March 31, 2019, deadline for counties to apply for grants to build new facilities, and lawmakers on the Lincoln Hills closure study committee are already filing recommendations to spend more money on new facilities. But it’s not too late to change to a better course.
Under the new administration, Wisconsin should reroute these funds toward investments in community-based alternatives like education, job training and other programs that provide youth a chance to repair the harm they’ve caused.
Right now, Wisconsin blacks are 10 times more likely than whites to be imprisoned (that’s twice the national average). That rate is even worse for young people: Wisconsin incarcerates African-American youth at a 15 times higher rate than white youth despite similar rates of offending. We can’t afford to ignore these racial disparities any longer, and we can't keep losing black youth to incarceration.
From the outset, Youth Justice Milwaukee’s major goals included closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. But our mission is greater: Create true reform in the justice system by ending the use of youth prisons in Wisconsin. This is our chance to invest in young people, to create safe communities without a Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake or any locked-door facility. Wisconsin’s new leadership has a golden opportunity to lead the way.
Jeff Roman is the co-founder of Youth Justice Milwaukee.
Editor's note: This column has been changed to correct a statistic about 2014 voter turnout.
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