By ALLISON DIKANOVIC
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
MILWAUKEE (AP) — About 60 people gathered recently at North Division High School to discuss opportunities for juvenile-justice reform following state legislation that will close Wisconsin’s youth prisons.
State lawmakers in March passed Act 185, which requires Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls to be closed by January 2021. Over the past several years, the youth prisons have undergone criminal investigations and been subject to numerous lawsuits for allegations of abuse, neglect and excessive use of force.
The meeting at North Division High School, organized by Youth Justice Milwaukee, a community-based juvenile-justice advocacy group, was meant to give Milwaukee residents an opportunity to learn a little more about Act 185. It followed on similar gatherings held by the State of Wisconsin Department of Corrections in Green Bay, Waukesha and Eau Claire throughout August.
Act 185 will not necessarily change how youth are referred to services, but it will change what happens after a young person receives a correctional order and is placed in a correctional center. Today, a young person who runs afoul of the law comes under DOC supervision, and the state provides services. After Act 185, this supervision will be split between the county and the state, according to Shelby McCulley, assistant administrator of DOC’s Division of Juvenile Corrections.
“We’re looking at this as an opportunity not only to comply with Act 185 and bring our youth closer to home, but also to remake what juvenile justice means in Wisconsin,” said Mark Mertens, director of the Milwaukee County Division of Youth and Families. “We want a system that’s going to be more prone to providing better outcomes for youth.”
To replace Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, the state will establish a new Type 1 center — one with security mechanisms and surveillance — that will be run by DOC. the The center will hold both young people the state deems “Serious Juvenile Offenders” and young people who were tried as adults in court.
Beyond the Type 1 center, several counties will operate smaller Secure Residential Care Centers for young people who receive correctional orders but are not part of the Serious Juvenile Offenders program. These will give counties more autonomy in how they serve youth with correctional orders, while still being regulated by the state.
Act 185 also provides money to expand the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center, which will remain under the state Department of Health Services.
The size and site of the Type 1 center has not been decided yet. The regulations for the secure centers are also yet to be set out.
Act 185 set up two committees to plan how to make the changes. On Sept. 1, the Juvenile Corrections Study Committee recommended programming for young people in corrections, before gathering advice in Milwaukee. It will make recommendations about the Type 1 center on Nov. 1. Seven of the 25 committee members are from Milwaukee, including Rep. Evan Goyke and Sen. Lena Taylor. The second committee is responsible for overseeing grant proposals counties submit to suggest ways to pay for the secure centers.
The location, size and design of the Milwaukee County secure center is still unknown, and Mertens said the county is weighing different options. The various possibilities include using the Vel Phillips Juvenile Justice Center, building a new center or working with a local provider that’s already providing residential care.
“We want it to be a more homelike setting, with a secure perimeter,” he said.
According to Mertens, the Milwaukee County secure center will not use pepper spray, chemical agents or punitive isolation to control or discipline youth. Planners want to have a setting that is “respectful, safe and relevant” to young people.
In order to meet the deadline that’s been set for March 2019 for grant applications, the county has formed working groups that are assigned to deal primarily with the proposed centers, budgets, programming and grants. It’s also working with consultants from Seattle and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Following the presentation, representatives from Youth Justice Milwaukee organized small-group discussions about a set of questions drawn up by the DOC. Both state and county officials encouraged residents to continue providing recommendations.
“There is no deadline for feedback to be meaningful to us,” McCulley said.
Some people at the meeting at North Division High School said they wanted to make sure the center could be reached by at least three bus lines so relatives of inmates could get to it easily.Simone Lewis-Turner, a 16-year-old junior at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, said she thinks young people should have a say in some of the big decisions concerning the project. She’d also like the center to have green space and the uniforms to be more “dignifying.”
Dian Racks, who has worked in child welfare services for more than 27 years, said the new center should not be like Lincoln Hills. “I want to see a focused, concentrated effort to create something more healing.”