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Gov. Tony Evers recommits to Lincoln Hills closure with new plan, but no firm timeline
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Gov. Tony Evers recommits to Lincoln Hills closure with new plan, but no firm timeline

Lincoln Hills

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

Gov. Tony Evers wants to move forward with closing the troubled Lincoln Hills juvenile prison by scrapping a former plan to build two new youth prisons and instead focus solely on the creation of much smaller, regional facilities.

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The closure of the Lincoln Hills facility, which has a documented history of abuse, was initially supposed to happen by Jan. 1 and has now been pushed to July. Evers has said the state will miss that deadline too as little progress has been made on building the new county-run facilities to house juvenile offenders.

In his budget introduced Tuesday — which will likely be largely thrown out by the Republican-controlled Legislature — Evers does not commit to any specific timeline for closing Lincoln Hills, but proposes a “multifaceted approach” for changes in the juvenile justice system to “press beyond” the former plan to shutter the facility. The plan puts $18.8 million over the biennium to supporting counties’ operational costs and $11.5 million toward changes.

The state Legislature adopted a law in 2017 that required the state to replace Lincoln Hills with a combination of small, county-run facilities and one or more newly built youth prisons, or “Type 1” facilities, run by the state Department of Corrections to house only the most serious juvenile offenders. Some youth are also held in the Mendota Mental Health Institute.

The goal was to detain youth closer to home in the county-run facilities, called Secure Residential Care Centers for Children and Youth. Lincoln Hills is located in Irma about 30 miles north of Wausau.

Under Evers’ budget, the state would eliminate the use of Type 1 facilities, such as Lincoln Hills, and have juvenile offenders held in the regional care centers instead. Both the state and county would be able to run the Secure Residential Care Centers, as opposed to the previous plan that put just counties in charge.

Dane County Juvenile Court Administrator John Bauman said part of the vision for the secure care centers was to make them feel less like prisons and more like treatment facilities. Although the centers would still need to be locked, each would be “more trauma-friendly” and have increased opportunities for programming, Bauman said.

“The hope was that they would be softer-in-appearance facilities and not the razor wires,” Bauman said. “And again, the design, I believe, is that they be local and closer to family, closer to community, closer to services that are from their community.”

Although the budget says the care centers could be run by the state, Evers would still need county buy-in, as his plan aims to phase out the state’s role in juvenile detention — even for the most serious offenders — and “move responsibility for caring for future young offenders to the counties.”

Dane County, as well as two other counties, pulled out of agreements with the state to build regional centers over operating budget concerns, uncertainty surrounding state funds, a lack of progress on the new Type 1 facilities and concern over whether the state was committed to the overall juvenile justice system changes necessary to make a new system work correctly. Only Racine County is moving forward with creating a local facility.

Dane County would have expanded the juvenile detention center in the City-County Building for nearly $6.5 million to create its regional center. Bauman said the plan is “on pause for now.”

The county grants to create the centers are still available, but Bauman said he’s not yet sure if Dane County will get back on board.

“We want to see a commitment to really revamping youth justice across the state,” Bauman said.

Evers’ budget includes changes that may address Bauman’s concern. The governor has proposed reducing the use of detention for juveniles who commit minor offenses, raising the age of adult jurisdiction from 17 to 18 and eliminating life without the possibility of extended supervision for juveniles. He also would fund staff training on youth justice and put $8.9 million toward helping counties with case management.

Fave 5: Emily Hamer picks her most impactful stories of 2020

Wisconsin State Journal reporter Emily Hamer's coverage of the protests in Madison this summer and of the criminal justice system is the work she thinks made the largest impact this year. 

As many focused on the nighttime destruction that sometimes followed local protests against racism and brutality this summer, some people missed the passion and meaning behind the movement. One of Hamer's favorite stories was one that focused on how Madison's youth were a driving force of the nighttime protests that formed organically. They called their movement "a revolution." An honorable mention: 'Celebration of life': Madison protesters honor Breonna Taylor with birthday party

Another impactful story revealed prosecutors can use small mistakes that aren't themselves crimes — such as drinking one beer, walking into a liquor store or forgetting a court date — to pressure defendants into pleading guilty. 

And before COVID-19 cases exploded in the prison system, a story in May showed that Wisconsin's largest prison was unprepared for the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Guards and inmates saw many ways the virus could breach the walls of their facility and spread unabated. Now, more than seven months later, the prison has had the largest COVID-19 outbreak of any state prison, with more than 950 total cases among inmates. 

"We want to see a commitment to really revamping youth justice across the state."

John Bauman, Dane County juvenile court administrator


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