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Catching up on Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake: Three things you need to know about Wisconsin’s troubled youth prisons

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By Allison Dikanovic

Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

A lot has happened over the past week affecting the future of Wisconsin’s youths in the justice system.

As local and state leaders get closer to figuring out what will replace the state’s troubled youth prisons, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, these are the three things you need to know right now:

1. The timeline for closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake is officially pushed back to July 2021.

On Friday, Gov. Tony Evers signed a follow-up bill to Act 185, the law that would close the youth prisons and replace them with smaller regional facilities run by individual counties and the state. If you want more background information on Act 185, check out this explainer piece.

Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), a co-sponsor on the new bill, said the point is to clarify parts of the original act. It does not make substantial changes to the plan itself, other than the timeline.

The new law gives the state Juvenile Corrections Grant Committee until Oct. 1, 2019, to make recommendations on what county projects should be funded.

In addition to the delayed timeline, the budget has changed with the new Evers administration. The grant committee now has $80 million to work with to fund counties’ proposals for regional facilities, which doubled from the original $40 million in Act 185.

The budget also allocates $43.9 million to the Department of Health Services to significantly expand Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center, a mental health institution that is also a high security correctional placement for youths.

The Joint Committee on Finance did not approve funding for new state-run facilities for youths with the most serious offenses. It is yet to be decided what these facilities will be and how they will be funded.

2. The third court-ordered report on the conditions at Lincoln Hills was released Monday, and it shows that there have been some major improvements at the prison.

The report said there was significant improvement in youth and staff wellness, as well as in the conditions of the facility itself, but it still found that rooms were not “suicide resistant.”

The report is the third to come from a monitor required by the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center on behalf of youths who experienced abuse at the prison.

The July report stated there has been “significant progress made in improving the quality of life for youth and staff” since the last report in April, noting positive staff and youth relationships and increased recreation.

It found that pepper spray and mechanical restraints were still being used in the facility, and youths were being punitively confined in their rooms, but at a much lower rate.

This overall positive review stands in contrast to past reports. It comes in light of the state recently reaching an almost $5 million settlement with three former youths who alleged they had been abused at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.

3. Milwaukee County proposed a local plan to replace Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake that does not involve building any new facilities.

On Monday, Milwaukee County submitted a new $41.8 million proposal to the state for its local piece of the plans to replace the youth prisons.

It submitted an earlier version in March, but this plan is significantly different. Namely, it doesn’t include building any new facilities but rather suggests renovations and new programs.

County leaders and local advocates have consistently been critical of the state’s plans to replace Lincoln Hills. They say the suggested smaller regional facilities are too similar to the youth prison model that has proven to be ineffective, yielding high recidivism rates of more than 70% and costing more than $144,000 a year to incarcerate one young person in Wisconsin.

“It wouldn’t be a wise use of our resources or taxes or an effective means of getting good outcomes by sticking with just building a building,” said Mary Jo Meyers, director of the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services.

The new proposal includes a renovation to the Vel R. Phillips Youth Detention Center and a collaboration with and renovation of existing residential facilities in the county through partnerships with “community partners” that haven’t been identified yet.

The rest of the requested funding would be dedicated to investing in personnel and staff training, as well as creating more programs to serve as alternatives to incarceration, such as mentoring programs.

Meyers said the reason for changing the proposal from building a new facility is to give greater flexibility to tailor the programming to changing needs, especially as the youth arrest rate continues to decline.

Milwaukee’s requests fall out of the original parameters of Act 185, so it’s still unknown if it will receive state funding.

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