While most of the focus on juvenile justice has been on the state’s failure to meet the January deadline to close the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons, Milwaukee County officials continue to make strides to drastically reduce the number of local youth incarcerated in these institutions.
Mark Mertens, administrator of the Division of Youth and Family Services for Milwaukee County, said 22 local youth remain housed at these facilities.
“I’m hoping that the closing of Lincoln Hills is a moot point for us by the end of 2021,” said Mertens, who added that the total was 120 just a few years ago. “Our wildest hope was to get down below 50.”
The order to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake was prompted by Act 185, which also mandated that the youth prisons be replaced with state-run facilities for serious offenders and regional county-run centers for youth with less serious offenses.
Milwaukee County had plans to build a new secure youth correctional facility with 80 beds, but that plan fell apart when the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee cut funds for the proposed facility.
With that option off the table, the county continues to work with community partners, including the Youth Justice Milwaukee coalition to move forward with its plan to reduce the number of youth who are incarcerated. Those strategies include expanding community-based programs, addressing policy issues, establishing better alternatives to revocation and finding alternatives to incarceration for youth that present a low-to-moderate risk to reoffend. They have also worked to get youth who are incarcerated released sooner.
“Incarceration is quite expensive and the return on that investment is not good,” Mertens said. “It also doesn’t always support community safety or progress for the youth.”
Another part of that strategy is to reinvest money saved by not incarcerating youth back into community programming. According to Mertens, about $615 a day is saved for each youth who does not go to corrections, which led to a surplus within the division of about $3 million in 2020. Some of those funds were used to fill budget gaps created by the pandemic, but $1.5 million was reinvested into the community, including funds to support the new “credible messenger” program. That program allows individuals who have experience with the justice system to provide mentoring aimed at helping youth make better decisions. Similar programs have had success in New York City, Baltimore and Chicago.
Another aspect of the county’s plan is to improve programs and the continuum of care for youth at the Bakari Center and the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center. Most of the youth at the Vel R. Phillips Center are participants of the Milwaukee County Accountability Program, also known as MCAP.
MCAP helps teens navigate tough circumstances
MCAP, launched in 2012, was created to keep incarcerated juveniles close to home and their families and to give them access to community resources unavailable to them upstate. It originally served 12 youth but was expanded to 24 participants in 2015. Act 185 capped the capacity of programs like MCAP, which eliminated the possibility of bringing more youth home from Lincoln Hills and into that program, said Mertens. Regardless, he said, youth who were charged as adults or are participants in the state’s Serious Juvenile Offender Program are ineligible for MCAP unless they have their court order changed or complete a juvenile review process.
MCAP helps youth learn to navigate through difficult peer and family situations and connect youth with social services aimed at changing negative behaviors and help them navigate through difficult peer and family situations.
“Many MCAP youth have attained skills in correcting thinking errors that have enabled them to make better, more prosocial decisions in the community,” Mertens said.
Participants also have access to educational services to help them recover credits and eventually graduate from high school. Several MCAP services are performed by Running Rebels, a youth-serving organization based in Milwaukee that provides monitoring and other programming for participants. Tara Martin, coordinator of MCAP for the Running Rebels, has been working with the program since 2013.
“We meet with them on the pod and work on setting goals, and we meet with the families,” Martin said. “We’re building that relationship and trust while we prepare them to enter the community phase.”
That relationship continues once a youth is released, as advocates help youth enroll in school, set up restitution and find music, sports or other positive programs to participate in.
“It really depends on each youth and their needs and interests,” she said. “For the high profile ones who are most at-risk, we try to see them more frequently and make sure they are not in contact with their negative peers.”
Another important component of the Running Rebels work with MCAP youth is to help them build at-home support, as each family is given the option to work with a parent advocate.
“If we’re not helping that family change, we’re setting that young person up for failure because he’s going back into the same environment,” Martin said.
Although recidivism rates for youth in MCAP are better than that for youth in Lincoln Hills, Mertens said, significant room for improvement remains. The larger challenge, he said, is helping youth mitigate the challenges of poverty and crime in their own communities.
“We need more resources for jobs, vocational training, education, and other pro-social activities that are compelling for our youth and can help provide the purpose, structure, relationships, and positive supports needed to counteract the risk factors that exist in the community,” he said.
While that work continues, there remains the issue of what will happen with Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. Only Racine County accepted funds to build a regional youth facility while groups such as Youth Justice Milwaukee continue to call for a complete overhaul of the state’s youth justice system.
“This transformation should eliminate correctional settings as placements for youth; limit out-of-home placements to only short-term stabilization and respite needs; scale up sustainable resources for prevention, including mentoring, employment opportunities, healthy recreation, enrichment, and wellness,” reads part of a recent statement issued by the group.
The group said the state’s focus should be on helping to heal youth, and not on increasing the availability of secure housing for youth at a time when that population has declined. Back in 2002, the average daily population of youth in Wisconsin correctional institutions was 819. By 2012, that number was 298 and by June of last year it was 120.
Governor’s budget proposal calls for changes
Gov. Tony Evers’ recent budget proposal called for several reforms of the youth justice system, including new rules that make it tougher to waive minors into adult court and the elimination of the Secure Juvenile Offender Program. He also proposed the elimination of Type 1 youth prisons (Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake) and authorization for the state to operate secure residential care centers for youth.
State Rep. Evan Goyke, a Milwaukee Democrat, has also called for the state to review what type of youth correctional facilities are needed.
“Three years ago we were envisioning a larger capacity and that’s no longer needed,” Goyke said. “ Milwaukee County and others have done an amazing job of reducing the number of kids who are incarcerated, and that number continues to go down.”