Wisconsin Legislature Sets Three-Year Clock on Juvenile Prison Shutdown

In January, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) announced that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections would gradually shutter two juvenile facilities beleaguered by rampant use of solitary confinement and chemical restraints.

Deadline Set: Wisconsin has until 2021 to close and replace two juvenile prisons.

Late last month, the state legislature made that official in law, and put a clock on the process to ensure that closing Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls did not drag on.

The law sets Jan. 1, 2021, as the last date of operation for the two facilities. Both are located in the Town of Irma, three hours away from Milwaukee, where most of the youths placed in its cells are from.

Youth Justice Milwaukee, a central advocacy group pushing for closure, said it is paramount that the state include communities in the discussion about what comes next.

“Our lawmakers must not ignore the people that this legislation will affect the most,” said Youth Justice co-founders Sharlen Moore and Jeffery Roman, in a statement released after the bill passed. “Now, more than ever, community activists and young people need to be a part of designing the future of youth justice in Wisconsin.”

Advocates and attorneys pushing for closure of the facilities hailed the bill as an important step, but were critical of the plan to route a lot of new money into other incarceration options.

“Closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake is the right move,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center, in a statement issued after the bill’s passage. The center has helped lead a campaign against the facilities with the local chapter of the ACLU.

The discussion now turns to what sort of service array the state uses to replace the two facilities. The governor’s plan to replace the two facilities included possibly building an array of smaller regional facilities around the state. The legislation does not set a number of replacements, establishes a committee to study the secure care needs in different parts of the state, but does allocate funds for opening new secure facilities.

“Unfortunately, the current legislation also directs too many resources into secure care for young people,” Feierman said. “Now the key for all stakeholders – including the study committee created by the Act, the legislature, and the public – will be to ensure that the harsh and unconstitutional practices used at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are never replicated.”

Moore told The Chronicle of Social Change that Youth Justice Milwaukee will push for more investment in community-based services for juveniles.

“Our system needs to find more alternatives for placement instead of looking to put kids behind cages and bars,” Moore said. “We are trying to map what is available already … see what’s successful and start scaling up. There are certain programs that are not even at capacity now.”

Moore said a key will be to “focus on the study committee. We have to get them to have individuals with the right skill set to be on that. That’s where we’ll have most leverage.”

She said Youth Justice Milwaukee has sent Gov. Walker a letter requesting that its leadership be included on the committee, and also making further recommendations for qualified appointees.

“We’re hoping there’s a place for us on the study committee,” Moore said. “A lot of [the slots] are governor-appointed positions. We’re not going to wait for people to reach out to us.”

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1213 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.