Milwaukee County has submitted an official grant proposal to the state for its plan to open a secure center for youths, adhering to the initial timeline laid out in the bill that will close and replace Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are discussing a bill that would delay the closure of the youth prisons by six months, pushing it from January 2021 to June 2021, as reported by the Journal Sentinel. Much of the reasoning for proposing a delay has been the concern that counties did not have enough time to plan for the role they will play in the process of replacing the youth prisons.
“Part of our reasoning for submitting was to demonstrate our commitment to readiness,” said Mary Jo Meyers, director of Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services. She said Milwaukee County was the first county in the state to present a plan to the juvenile corrections grant committee.
Milwaukee County is proposing a $41.14 million, 50,000 square feet facility with 40 beds for youths whom judges deem a risk to public safety but not a Serious Juvenile Offender. Youth in the Serious Juvenile Offender program will be housed in a state-run facility, which will also be in Milwaukee. The grant proposal is for the cost of the facility, startup costs for corresponding programming, staffing and training. Ongoing operational costs will come from both the state and the county.
Meyers said the proposed facility is just “one step” of the county’s effort to improve outcomes of the young people who go through the criminal justice system and that she hopes to dedicate more resources to its “front end” supports for youths to prevent them from needing to be placed in corrections in the first place. As the state bill stands now, these grant dollars are limited just to building new facilities.
“Our desire is to have a reformed system where we wouldn’t spend so much on bricks and mortar,” Meyers said. “But our commitment is to follow the legislation as it’s written out as a way to bring our kids home as soon as possible.”
Fifty-seven Milwaukee youths are at Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake, according to a statement issued by County Executive Chris Abele on Friday.
The county released visual renderings of the proposed facility, which appears to resemble a school or office building. At various community meetings, Milwaukee residents have expressed concern about seeing a new building that looks like a prison pop up in their neighborhood.
Meyers said the facility will include natural light, colorful paintings, classrooms, green spaces and a health clinic.
“We’ve done all the work on how it needs to be laid out to be both aesthetically pleasing and safe and secure,” Meyers said. “It’s quite pleasant. It’s actually nicer than most buildings that you see… I think people will be pleasantly surprised.”
Milwaukee County has yet to determine a site for this new facility. Meyers said the City of Milwaukee is working to help the county find land to build on, but that the county has already looked at more than 70 sites. Gov. Tony Evers recently announced that the state would build its youth facility for Serious Juvenile Offenders on the location the county had originally selected.
Inside the facility, Meyers said the county plans to provide education, mental health treatment and vocational training programs. The county is talking with Milwaukee Public Schools about a partnership and is planning to partner with local business leaders to develop job training programs in areas such as cosmetology, heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
In addition to building a new secure center for youth, Milwaukee County included funding to renovate the part of the Vel R. Phillips Youth Detention Center that is utilized for the Milwaukee County Accountability Program in order to make the space “feel more treatment-like and less of a detention facility,” according to Meyers.
Advocates raised concerns about the proposal.
“It’s beautiful, but it’s too big,” said Sharlen Moore, co-founder of advocacy organization Youth Justice Milwaukee. “What they’re planning on building falls in line with large institutional settings that will just be wasted dollars.”
“We definitely want to make sure that young people are brought home from Lincoln Hills as soon as possible, but based on the decline in arrests across the country, large-scale institutionalized models are extremely costly, and they don’t yield high results,” she said.
This national decline in youth arrests is reflected in Milwaukee. According to data from Milwaukee County, the number of Milwaukee youths placed in state correctional facilities has decreased by 56.5 percent since 2011, and since 2011, law enforcement has referred 19.7 percent fewer youth to the Milwaukee County Department of Youth and Family Services.
The state juvenile corrections grant committee met last week and has yet to release any guidelines about when or how Milwaukee’s County’s grant application will be processed, and any funding proposal would also need to go through the state’s Joint Committee on Finance for approval.
For more on the issue, read our explainer.