Wisconsin Prison Investigation

Wisconsin counties, on the hook to build regional replacement facilities for the embattled Lincoln Hills youth prison with state funding approved earlier this year, are worried the money won’t be adequate on the current timeline.

The counties with the highest population of youth offenders — Milwaukee, Dane and Racine, among others — are optimistic legislators will work with them as the state shifts much of its responsibility onto county governments for housing youth offenders. But others, including La Crosse, are holding out on their decisions to build until they see concrete state guidelines for the new facilities and assurances of flexibility on timelines.

Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers acknowledged funding may not be adequate and said some state legislators are already looking at ways to ease the transition for counties, which under current law are required to build youth corrections facilities by Jan. 1, 2021.

Assembly Corrections Committee chairman Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, who was instrumental in crafting and passing the bill to close Lincoln Hills, said lawmakers will likely have to look at upping the $40 million already allocated to counties to build what the bill dubs secure residential care centers for children and youth.

Currently, serious and less serious offenders can be held at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake located near Irma, in northern Wisconsin. Both facilities have been under state or federal investigation for about four years after allegations of inmate and staff abuse.

Under the sweeping bill lawmakers passed in March to close the troubled youth prison, the most severe juvenile offenders will be sent to so-called “Type 1” youth detention centers. Lawmakers on the juvenile corrections study committee say one of these centers is likely to be located in Milwaukee County, though no final decision has been reached.

Meanwhile, a handful of counties will be responsible for building and maintaining their own secure detention centers for less-severe offenders, which could result in significant operational costs for counties. The state is supposed to cover 95 percent of costs for building county centers for males and 100 percent for female facilities.

About five or six county facilities are likely to be built, however, the final number will depend on how many counties agree to build a facility and which ones the committee awards grants.

Funding questioned

Milwaukee County Health and Human Services director Mary Joe Meyers said for her county, which currently houses about 65 youth at Lincoln Hills, the $40 million — currently set aside for all counties — wouldn’t even be enough to cover a renovated facility for Milwaukee. The county, she said, is looking at options for renovation and new construction.

“From what we’ve studied, we’re pretty confident even if we were awarded the full amount it would not be enough. We’re really hoping to influence the amount of money that is dispersed,” Meyers said.

The Wisconsin Counties Association, which was heavily involved in the bill from its inception, is again at the center of an effort to ensure the process for counties runs smoothly.

For months it has been hosting meetings for the handful of counties that are interested in building regional youth centers.

Sarah Diedrick-Kasdorf, a lobbyist for the WCA, said the Legislature will need to make changes to both the timeline and the funding in the bill.

“Given what we generally know the cost of building a single facility might be, I think we’re probably pretty safe to assume $40 million won’t be enough money,” she said.

She also expressed concern at the state’s current timeline, which would require counties to submit design proposals by the end of March and facilities to be built by the end of 2020. She hopes to push the latter deadline back by six months.

Myers agreed the deadlines are tight but said the county is moving full steam ahead to meet them.

“It’s critically important to us that we bring our children back to Milwaukee County,” she said. “If we ask for any extension in deadlines, that means the children stay at Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills longer.”

Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, who also had a significant role in crafting the Lincoln Hills legislation, said he would be open to providing counties with more funding but said he first wants to see details of county proposals. Extensions of the deadline could be considered on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Even so, questions about both make counties such as La Crosse and Brown hesitate.

“The deadline for doing all this is a very, very short time frame that any county is going to have a hard time meeting, and we’ve expressed that to the parties that are involved,” La Crosse County administrator Steve O’Malley said.

Architects assisting counties in planning the youth facilities have told them fully drafting a design could take up to eight months and construction as long as a year. They likely wouldn’t get the go-ahead on construction until after the Legislature’s budget committee approves proposals, likely after July 1. The committee will prioritize projects that make use of existing facilities, such as the proposal from Dane County.

Another factor affecting the county’s decision will be the state guidelines for the county facilities, which need to be submitted to the governor by Dec. 17. Those guidelines will determine design, construction, repair and maintenance, among other things. Officials with several counties said those rules could significantly affect building and operational costs.

DOC submitted a draft version of the guidelines Nov. 30, and Diedrick-Kasdorf said counties are generally satisfied save for a few needed clarifications.

Eau Claire County has chosen not to build a regional youth center for philosophical rather than financial reasons. Health and Human Services director Diane Cable said the county initially considered the proposal as beneficial for youth but dropped the idea in favor of focusing on community-based solutions rather than housing offenders in a jail-like setting. She said western Wisconsin already sees a low number of serious offenders and that the county continues to prioritize its prevention programs.

Eau Claire is the only county to have considered building a facility and declined, Diedrick-Kasdorf said.

Other counties serious about building a regional youth facility, such as Dane, are planning ahead to implement the provisions in the bill. The Dane County Board has approved $4 million to renovate a space in the City-County Building that could house up to more than a dozen youth offenders. It currently houses roughly 10 youth at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake.

Racine County has also been working with an architect to explore designs for new and renovated facilities and will make a determination on the funding available.

Costs uncertain

The determination of how many offenders to plan for is part of the risk in building youth facilities. Overbuilding could lead to a county bleeding money in operational costs.

Meyers said her county needs to avoid a situation such as New Beginnings in Washington, D.C., a state-of-the-art facility she said is looking to re-purpose space after the number of offenders sent there declined, a trend she’s witnessed in Milwaukee County.

Operational costs are an area where counties hope to negotiate. The law as written would provide a 15 percent annual bump in operational or “youth aids” funds for counties that opt to build a facility. But some counties exploring a bid don’t think that’s enough, especially with what is likely to be a heavy staffing requirement at the new facilities.

Milwaukee County spokeswoman Karina Henderson argued concerns over operational costs are part of a broader trend of the state increasing the number of mandated programs for counties but failing to provide adequate funding to match.

Diedrick-Kasdorf said it’s already clear operational costs for counties to run the youth centers will almost certainly be more than the costs of sending their youth offenders to Lincoln Hills. She said she’s interested in securing additional funding for operations in the 2021-23 state budget to avoid forcing counties to dip into funding for community corrections programming.

Erik Pritzl, director of health and human services for Brown County, said officials there are exploring a bid but aren’t sure whether they would be able to recruit and maintain workers for it. Staffing at corrections facilities has long been a problem statewide and has contributed to the problems at Lincoln Hills.

Despite concerns, county leaders said they expect the state will listen to them.

“I feel like if we’re putting forth a really good effort in determination of a plan, I think they’ll work with us,” said Racine County executive Jonathan Delagrave.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the location where the Dane County juvenile facility will be located.

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Capitol reporter

Riley Vetterkind covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal. He can be reached at (608) 252-6135 or rvetterkind@madison.com.