Wisconsin Policy Forum

As the populations at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake have declined, Wisconsin counties are seeking alternatives to sending youths to the troubled juvenile prisons as their per-inmate costs to house them there have more than tripled.

The populations of boys at Lincoln Hills and girls at Copper Lake have steadily declined since 2015. That’s when several staff members were punished for misconduct throughout the year, resulting in then-Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Wall resigning in February 2016.

While the overall cost to run the facilities has fluctuated in those years, fixed costs and declining populations mean taxpayers are spending more per youth to incarcerate them in Lincoln County at the state’s only high-security youth facility. That has driven up the counties’ cost per juvenile.

Counties foot much of the bill for sending youth offenders to the facilities, according to DOC, while the state funds incarcerating youth sentenced as adults and those designated as serious juvenile offenders.

Milwaukee County Interim Administrator for Children, Youth and Family Services Kelly Pethke told WisPolitics.com that counties now pay a combined rate of $1,154 per day to send youth offenders to Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake or Mendota Mental Health Institute.

Pethke added that will increase in July to $1,178 per day, money she said counties could use to fund services in their areas.

“That’s money we can’t spend here in Milwaukee to keep kids here in Milwaukee and work with the kids, parents and the community,” Pethke said.

Pethke said Milwaukee County has been using alternatives to sending kids up to the juvenile prisons in order to keep them closer to home. She said the county has been placing youth offenders in the Milwaukee County Accountability Program located at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility maximum-security prison instead.

Since 2015, the cost to keep boys at Lincoln Hills has increased to an average of $941 per day from $259, according to the latest DOC data. To keep girls at Copper Lake, those numbers grew to $2,225 from $361 per day over the same period.

Those 2021 costs cover incarcerating an average of roughly 60 boys and six girls per year, according to DOC data. In 2015, the average population of boys throughout the year was 243 while there were 33 girls incarcerated on average throughout the year at Copper Lake.

Right now there are 41 boys at Lincoln Hills, including 25 from Milwaukee County, four from Dane County and two from Kenosha County. There are also 13 girls at Copper Lake, including two from Milwaukee County, two from Dane County and four from Kenosha County, according to DOC numbers.

Former Gov. Scott Walker signed Act 185 in 2018 ordering the youth prisons to close by January 2021 and end the use of chokeholds and pepper spray, among other things. Gov. Tony Evers signed an extension of that deadline to July 2021. But without an alternative to replace the facilities and send the most serious juvenile offenders, those deadlines passed without closure.

A bill to provide $42 million to construct a replacement facility in Milwaukee County has been slowly making its way through the Legislature. The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee heard public comment on Senate Bill 520, which would mandate the new facility be built in Milwaukee County; but it does not specify exactly where that facility will be built.

Committee members and legislators at the hearing agreed building a new facility in Milwaukee is an important step in the move to close Lincoln Hills, but they did not come to a consensus on where in Milwaukee it should be built.

Assembly Bill 524 was scheduled for a hearing Tuesday, Feb. 15, before the Assembly Corrections Committee, with an executive session on Thursday. The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee was to exec on the bill Wednesday.

Committee member and co-author of the Senate bill, Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, told WisPolitics.com the move would improve safety.

“What’s happening at Lincoln Hills with declining enrollment; it’s not a good atmosphere for the kids, and it’s very much not a good atmosphere for the staff,” she said. Felzkowski lives near the juvenile facilities and knows several of the staff.

She added that keeping youth offenders closer to home and allowing more family interaction is a better way to reform them. And with much of the youth at Lincoln Hills coming from southeastern Wisconsin, the proposed Milwaukee facility would accomplish that.

She proposed repurposing the existing juvenile facilities into minimum security housing for adult inmates who need drug, alcohol and other substance abuse treatment.

Assembly leadership is the major roadblock for the bill, as Senate leadership has been on board since day one, Felzkowski noted.

Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, told WisPolitics.com it’s high time to get it done.

He said the move would be a win for Democrats and Republicans as lawmakers seek juvenile justice reform and a way to repurpose the juvenile prisons to provide drug and alcohol treatment resources for adult inmates.

“It is about functioning, good government, and solving the problem we came together to solve a couple years ago,” he said.

Goyke and Felzkowski described the push to close Lincoln Hills as a three-pronged approach.

“This is the last piece of it,” Felzkowski said. “And putting it off for another session doesn’t help anyone, it just needs to get done and let DOC get to work on it.”

The other two prongs include plans to build a Racine County facility to house less serious juvenile offenders and an expansion project for the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Dane County to increase capacity by 50 beds and house more female inmates.

Department of Health Services spokeswoman Jennifer Miller told WisPolitics.com the department plans to break ground on the $66 million expansion project for the Mendota project “very soon.” She said the planned timeline sets a completion date of November or December 2024.

Racine County is planning a $42 million youth detention center on 3 Mile Road in the village of Caledonia largely funded by the state. The village board is set to vote on the plan Feb. 21. The plan includes 18 months of construction, possibly starting this summer.

Corrections proposed repurposing the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center, an adult work-release facility in Milwaukee, to house the more serious youth offenders, but that idea met strong opposition from Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, during the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee public hearing on the Milwaukee County replacement facility bill.

Others from the Milwaukee area at the hearing also voiced concerns about getting rid of a facility they say is needed to make sure adults have the necessary tools to re-enter the community.

For more, visit WisPolitics.com

The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at WisPolitics.com, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in coverage of government and politics, and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.