First of three parts
Editor’s note: Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service has changed the names of youths in New York’s justice system upon request to ensure their safety and privacy.
NEW YORK — The walk from a subway station in Brooklyn, New York, to a secure facility for kids in the criminal justice system takes all of five minutes. The route passes by a laundromat, a Chinese takeout restaurant, a bodega with fresh flowers on the sidewalk and a college preparatory high school.
It’s a little different than the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Milwaukee through fields and farms to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons in the unincorporated town of Irma, Wisconsin.
In Brooklyn, the gray stone apartment building is indistinguishable from other homes on the block. A hip-level black gate with decorative trim opens up to a concrete courtyard with a space for recycling bins. Blue stairs lead to a glass-paned locked door. Once opened, another locked door is just inside, an additional yet subtle security measure.
The windows have bars on them that match the aesthetic of the gate. No razor barbed wire is in sight.
Young people whom family courts deem to be the highest risk to the community are placed in this limited-secure facility, right in the middle of a residential neighborhood, across the street from a school.
The front room has two couches by the window and a box of board games for when families come to visit the kids, usually at least once a week.
In the winter, the youths help shovel neighbors’ sidewalks, and in the summer, they help garden, said Lisa Crook, vice president of justice for youth and families programs at Rising Ground, one of the nonprofits that operates these homes.
“There’s this mindset, like ‘oh, you need to be punished for your crime,’ but what I’ve often said is just because we have a homelike setting, and we have therapeutic intervention, does not mean that the kids are not acutely aware of the accountability and what led them to be placed with us in the first place,” Crook said.
“If you have a program that looks institutional and treats a kid institutionally, you teach someone how to be institutionalized,” she added.
In the year and a half since the Wisconsin legislature passed a bill to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and replace the state’s youth prisons with smaller regional facilities, local and state leaders have proposed various replacement plans. Leaders from Milwaukee County—including County Executive Chris Abele—have looked to best practices in places across the country to use as inspiration for changes locally. They have continually referenced New York’s Close to Home reform initiative as a model to learn from.
New York’s approach
Felipe Franco, deputy commissioner for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, said: “We believe that kids should be served in their homes or close to their homes, and we value that these communities and these families are actually part of the solution.”
This wasn’t always the mindset in New York.
In 2012, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation called Close to Home, which restructured the way New York’s youth justice system worked as a whole. The initiative moved all of the state’s young people from state-run youth prison facilities upstate into community-based programs, and, in some situations, into small residential care homes with limited security measures, in the city.
More robust alternative-to-incarceration programs were put in place to give judges sentencing options that wouldn’t remove youths from their homes. The criteria for who was considered “high risk” and in need of residential placement were changed, with the goal to keep more kids at home and limit the number of youths who are placed in the Close to Home facilities.
For those who the courts decide do need to be placed, these 29 home-like facilities—which can house up to 12 youths but these days usually have fewer than five—adhere to a therapeutic model of care that focuses on shifting the way young people make decisions.
The emphasis is on family engagement and involvement in the broader community to prepare the youths for returning home. Girls are housed separately from boys. Nonprofits receive contracts from the city to operate the homes, so as the needs change and as the number of youths being placed declines, the city can easily close homes or change their purpose.
The sweeping reforms came in the wake of a declining youth crime rate, a significantly increasing cost of housing a young person in one of the upstate prisons and mounting pressure from advocates as investigations and reports of abuse surfaced from the state facilities. Leaders have acknowledged that the youth prison model they were using was no longer effective for New York’s young people.
Just one year before New York passed Close to Home, in 2011, Wisconsin took a drastically different approach to shifting how it handled youths in the justice system.
Rather than shuttering large prison-like institutions and moving Milwaukee youths back to the city, the state closed its correctional facility in Southeastern Wisconsin, Ethan Allen in Delafield, Wisconsin, and transferred all of the youths to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
Since then, in line with national trends, New York and Wisconsin have both continued to experience a decline in youth arrests and residential placement in correctional facilities. They both also arrest and lock up black and brown youths at much higher rates than their white counterparts.
However, other than that, the states’ two approaches have yielded vastly different outcomes.
In Wisconsin, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake fell into a state of well-documented disarray that has cost taxpayers more than $25 million in legal fees to date. Criminal investigations have opened and closed. Youths have sued for allegations of abuse, injury, sexual assault and neglect at the institution. The facilities experienced severe understaffing and inadequate training.
Expenses have soared. It now costs more than $144,000 a year to incarcerate each young person at Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake and is expected to surpass $200,000 in the next year. The most recent recidivism rate for youths at Lincoln Hills within the three- year period from 2014 to 2017 was 58.8%, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Meanwhile in New York, from 2014 to 2016, only 7.6% of youths violated their probation and 14% were readmitted to a Close to Home facility. From 2013 to 2018, the number of youths placed in residential facilities in New York dropped by 71%, in effect shrinking the whole system. In the 2018 fiscal year, only 154 youths in all of New York City were placed in Close to Home facilities, according to New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services.
But possibly more revealing than just recidivism or a decline in placements, the Close to Home reforms in New York seem to be creating additional positive outcomes for youths, according to a report from the Columbia Justice Lab, a research organization at Columbia University studying justice system reform. In the 2016-’17 school year, 91% of youths in the facilities passed their academic classes. In 2016, 91% of youths enrolled in a community-based program after being released from a facility and 67% successfully completed their aftercare program.
“I think the Close to Home programs they have now are reasonable,” said Nathan, a 13-year-old who completed a placement in a Close to Home facility. “If you’re going to commit a crime, it’s not like you’re just going to get a walk in the park. I’m not saying that it’s lit, but it’s actually reasonable. It’s not like you’re in jail.”
“I really matured when I was in there,” he said. “They taught me how to look at things differently, and it helped me mature.”
Lessons for Wisconsin?
The changes that Wisconsin and Milwaukee make in the wake of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake closing have the potential to affect the future of some of the state’s most vulnerable youths.
In its most recent application to the state juvenile justice grant committee, Milwaukee County submitted a proposal that in some ways resembles the Close to Home model.
The county’s latest plan includes renovations to existing residential facilities, including the Vel R. Phillips Youth Detention Center, and possibly leasing other spaces in partnership with existing service providers to create 32 total beds for Milwaukee youths placed in residential correctional settings. The plan would also build out more local, community‐based programs to accommodate youths in the system instead of sending them upstate or placing them in correctional settings.
However, the state grant committee has yet to determine which counties will receive funding for their replacement plans.
Other counties across Wisconsin have also applied, and their proposals include building new secure correctional facilities and renovating detention centers.
Additionally, the state Department of Corrections has released renderings of a youth prison with 35 beds that it seeks to build in Milwaukee County for youths deemed “serious juvenile offenders.” The state also plans to build a youth prison in Hortonia and to significantly expand Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center, which is a secure correctional facility in Madison, increasing the number of beds across the state for youth in the justice system.
In New York, Crook stressed the importance of making sure kids are connected to supports in their communities.
“We have to be real,” Crook said. “The kids are going back to the same places they’re coming from, and so they have to learn how to make better decisions in the same communities where they’re at.”
How we reported this story: Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service reporter Allison Dikanovic received a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network to travel to New York City earlier this summer to report this story. She visited two Close to Home youth justice facilities, two mentoring groups and met with various stakeholders in the system, including youths, parents, nonprofit organizations, advocates, researchers and city officials to learn about changes that New York made to its system.
Wednesday: A day in the life of a Close to Home facility.