Although the closure of the state’s two youth prisons remains in question, Milwaukee leaders say their focus continues to be on finding alternatives to youth incarceration.
Last week the Joint Finance Committee voted not to fund two state-run youth prison facilities, one of which would have been located in Milwaukee County. This makes it unlikely that Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls will be closed by the July 2021 deadline.
Mary Jo Meyers, director of Milwaukee County’s Department of Health and Human Services, called the news disappointing.
“On the surface, it definitely changes our plans because it forces us to go back to the drawing board again,” she said. “But we’ve been working actively to reduce the number of kids going to secure facilities and to see how the kids we have there can be brought back sooner. So from the perspective of our programming, that all will continue to happen.”
Passed in 2018, Act 185 ordered the closure of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, replacing them with smaller regional facilities run by local counties and the state and expanding Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison. Originally, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake were to close in January 2021, but that deadline was later changed to July 2021.
Act 185 only authorizes funding for construction of new prison facilities. It does not include any funding for the alternatives to incarceration that the county wants to implement.
Youth Justice Milwaukee, an advocacy organization, has also stressed the importance of funding programming instead of constructing new facilities. Sharlen Moore, its executive director said her organization is focused on keeping young people out of the incarceration system altogether.
“We’re looking to decrease the footprint of incarceration in Wisconsin,” Moore said. “We’re not here to build prisons, we’re here to support young people.”
Meanwhile, the county is continuing to focus on its “continuum of care” model, which favors integrating young people back into the Milwaukee community through a series of specialized programs. The model, based on other systems used across the nation, is designed to limit the amount of time youth spend in prison and to connect them with mentors and resources.
That model, and the work on-the-ground in Milwaukee, isn’t changing much in the near future, said Dawn Barnett, co-executive director at Running Rebels, a community organization that partners with the county to work with young people involved in the justice system.
“The issue with what’s happening with Act 185 is that it’s all talk right now. Our focus is doing everything we can for the young people in our care every single day,” she said.