By Milwaukee Courier

As Wisconsin looks to establish a new correctional system for youth, it is incumbent upon us to act with great urgency to respond to the immediate crisis at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools. We must take deliberate action to promote youth justice system reforms that are most effective, safe, sustainable and support proper care and treatment of our youth.

While Act 185 has many merits, it doesn’t go far enough. Act 185, which this administration inherited, only marginally improves the status quo while a paradigm shift is needed. Instead of pushing for transformational change, it aims to improve conditions of confinement without reducing the number of youth Wisconsin places in locked custody or the state’s carceral footprint.

In their 2011 publication, No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration, the Annie E. Casey Foundation outlined six failings of America’s juvenile corrections facilities. It stated that juvenile corrections facilities are dangerous, ineffective, unnecessary, obsolete, wasteful and inadequate. Given the poor outcomes of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, it would be fair to similarly categorize Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections facilities by these pitfalls.

Lincoln Hills School (LHS)
Lincoln Hills School (LHS)

In response to these failings, the Casey Foundation identified six priorities including limiting the eligibility for correctional placements, investing in promising non-residential alternatives, changing the financial incentives, adopting best practice reforms for managing youth offenders, replacing large institutions with small, treatment-oriented facilities, and using data to hold systems accountable. The State of Missouri and Wayne County, Michigan (Detroit) are examples of jurisdictions who used these strategies to eliminate state juvenile correctional facilities and realize remarkable reductions of youth in secure care facilities.

Reports by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and Columbia University Justice Lab have outlined the successes of the Close to Home initiative implemented in New York City. Since 2011, the model successfully reduced the need for secure care for youth and lowered youth crime rates when compared to the rest of New York State. Other jurisdictions like Philadelphia and Houston are looking to learn from the Close to Home model, as they respond to the failures of their large correctional facilities. The success of models like Close to Home have now prompted over 50 justice system leaders to sign a statement calling for the closure of all youth prisons and placing these youth at home with rigorous community programming, or in small, home-like facilities close to the youth’s families.

If revisions to the DOC 347 were made, Milwaukee County could develop smaller, more home-like secure settings for the majority of youth at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and renovate two pods in the Detention Center to serve the youth in need of additional internal structure and security. Only a small number of the youth committed to restrictive custodial care actually require the type of Wisconsin Must Shift Youth Justice Policy to Promote Transformative Change internal security available within a detention center or correctional facility. We believe that such a plan could result in significant savings and reduce the overall institutional footprint, while providing a more trauma-informed and engaging treatment environment for most youth.

Wisconsin has the second highest rate of disparity in confinement between white and black youth in the nation. Black youth are 15 times more likely than white youth to be confined in our state. This is not only true in Milwaukee. It is true across our state. We cannot incarcerate our way out the problems our youth are facing. We must find a better way, and our best opportunity is now.

It is critical to strengthen the network of providers, mentors, coaches, employers, teachers, and advocates who look like and have similar life experiences as our youth. Programs like Running Rebels help young people be successful and lead healthy, prosocial lives. However, it is imperative that we continue to expand the capacity for mentors with lived experience, vocational training, alternative educational, recreational resources and socioeconomic advancement opportunities for underserved youth and families in Milwaukee.

The history of juvenile prison failures spanning decades and across over 30 states, territories, and the District of Columbia, coupled with our own tragic and troubling experiences within Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools more than justify the call for the closing of all youth prisons. To that end, the state should eliminate “Type I” facilities and build regional Secure Residential programs. If we aspire to establish a new, therapeutic treatment culture in our youth justice system, we must understand that words matter. We must do everything within our power to assure that our history of abusive institutions does not repeat itself and we must do so at this critical juncture.

We believe that these proposed changes will position our state to continue to pursue transformative improvements. It is only through this pursuit that we can establish an effective, sustainable and fiscally responsible youth justice system. Wisconsin should not waste this tremendous opportunity to redefine who we are as a state when it comes to youth justice.

This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Courier. 

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