Dane County pulled out of an agreement with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to build new youth detention centers Friday, which could halt the state’s plan to close Lincoln Hills youth prison by 2021.
In a memo sent to Dane County supervisors on Tuesday, Carrie Springer, a legislative lobbyist in the county executive office, said the county, one of four in partnership on the project, needed to send a formal rejection letter by Friday to withdraw from the program.
The memo outlined a number of concerns that fueled the county’s decision to cut ties with the program. Those included county operating budget concerns due to COVID-19, uncertainty surrounding any related funds from the state, the lack of developments on new regional juvenile correctional facilities to house youth offenders currently at Lincoln Hills once the center is closed, and unease about the lack of commitment to overall juvenile justice reform necessary to make a new system work correctly.
The Wisconsin Counties Association hosted a call among representatives from Dane, Milwaukee, Brown and Racine counties in early August. All but Racine County were uncertain they wanted to continue with the project to build new Secure Residential Care Centers for Children and Youth, according to the memo.
Counties submitted requests for roughly $111 million to build four regional centers in 2019. Dane County submitted a proposal for nearly $6.5 million to expand the current juvenile detention center in the City-County Building to add 23 beds for male youth and six beds for female youth, according to the memo.
The agreement between the county and state offered Dane 95% of grant funds necessary to provide updates to its current juvenile detention facility, but unease with the partnership arose due to lack of development in the state’s plan to build new regional Type 1 juvenile detention facilities to replace Lincoln Hills.
On Friday, Dane County Juvenile Court Administrator John Bauman sent a formal email to Jared Hoy, assistant deputy secretary for DOC, to decline the grant to fund construction of a new juvenile facility.
“Dane County is interested in continuing the conversation and planning for what is necessary and appropriate for the youth justice system of Wisconsin, and we look forward to further discussion,” Bauman said in the message.
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said he was worried the county would become financially beholden to the state and required to accept serious juvenile offenders in a facility that isn’t equipped to house them if Lincoln Hills closes before regional Type 1 facilities are opened across the state.
“What we’re seeing is a lack of follow through, for one thing,” Parisi said of the state’s promise to close Lincoln Hills, the troubled juvenile detention facility, in 2018.
A federal investigation into the Lincoln Hills juvenile detention facility outlined a history of abuse that gained media attention and spelled trouble for then-Gov. Scott Walker’s re-election campaign.
Leading up to November 2018, a series of bills was passed in the state Assembly and Senate, including the expansion of programming for juveniles at Mendota Mental Health Institute, plans to house more juveniles closer to home in county-run facilities, and to build one or more new “Type 1” facilities for serious juvenile offenders, all with the goal of closing Lincoln Hills by January 2021. But in the time since Walker’s defeat, little has been done to follow through with the legislation.
“Everyone has to do their part,” Parisi said, “and I’m not willing to risk the well-being of our young people who the system is caring for and the taxpayer dollars in going it alone.”
Once it became clear the deadline to close Lincoln Hills would not be met, due to a lack of state funds authorized to support the project, it was pushed to June 2021 through the passage of an Assembly bill in June 2019. The bill also enacted policy changes that gave the Wisconsin Department of Health Services more authority when admitting youth to Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center and doubled the total bonding authorized to build county-run facilities to $80 million.
The federal investigation into Lincoln Hills ended in April 2019. No charges were filed, though lawsuits have resulted in millions of dollars being awarded to juvenile inmates who faced injury and abuse.
In 2019, Gov. Tony Evers signed a budget, by using partial vetoes, with $80 million for county facilities, $59 million for the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center expansion, and $47 million to build two, new Type 1 facilities to house serious juvenile offenders. Evers’ office didn’t respond to a request for comment Saturday.
Parisi said he is wary of new sets of legislation that have been introduced in the Assembly and Senate, one of which calls for mandatory minimum sentences for serious juvenile offenders.
“Mandatory minimums drive up costs in the system, but they don’t work if you look at data,” Parisi said. “You want to send juveniles down a path of rehabilitation and mental health services. You can’t have a blanket policy like that that looks at increasing mandatory minimums but doesn’t work to prevent juveniles from progressing to a point where they become more violent.”