The Milwaukee County Board on Thursday unanimously set in motion plans for removing nearly 170 county youths this year from a troubled state juvenile prison in northern Wisconsin and placing them instead in secure detention centers here.
The board declared a “state of emergency” for county teenagers at Lincoln Hills School for boys and the adjacent Copper Lake School for girls north of Wausau.
At the request of County Circuit Chief Judge Maxine White, the board’s resolution urges the county Delinquency and Court Services Division to immediately send a team of human service workers and other staff to the prison.
The team would advocate for county teenagers confined in the prison and begin preparing transition plans for each teenager, according to White. Team members also would assess each juvenile’s mental health needs and programming requirements, as well as their threat to public safety, White said in correspondence to the supervisors.
Concern for safety of the youth at the state-run prison was prompted by an ongoing federal and state investigation into allegations of abuse, neglect, sexual assault and excessive use of force. The investigation was revealed publicly after an early December law enforcement raid of the prison.
White described treatment of teenagers at the prison as “inhumane” after her visit in mid-December.
Apart from safety concerns, county youth at the prison “are not receiving the appropriate care and services that they require to live responsible and productive lives when they return to the community,” White said.
Removing Milwaukee County’s 170 teenagers would reduce the population of the juvenile facilities by nearly 70%. As of Thursday, the schools held 246 offenders, with more than 210 of them males at Lincoln Hills and more than 30 females at Copper Lake.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joy Staab said Thursday the agency “will stay focused on our mission of providing treatment and programming to youth in a safe and secure environment.”
“As the population changes, we will assess our current operating plan and adjust as needed,” Staab said.
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The board, on a 16-0 vote, approved expansion of a 180-day detention program at the Milwaukee County Grounds, authorized a study of creating secure detention space at the House of Correction in Franklin for the most serious juvenile offenders serving sentences of more than one year, and urged the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to establish residential care centers for children and youth in the county.
Those residential care centers could receive an unspecified number of youths from Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, under the resolution.
County Executive Chris Abele has said the House of Correction could provide available space for 24 of the most serious juvenile offenders in a separate detention center. More space may be needed there depending on the outcome of assessments of each of the teenagers.
The resolution authorizes spending up to $500,000 to create local secure detention space for the youth and enables county departments to bypass routine bidding on the renovation projects.
State law allows judges to sentence teenagers to up to one year in a secure detention center as an alternative to prison.
To fully staff both the team to be sent to the prison and expanded secure detention facilities in the county, the resolution authorizes the Health and Human Services Department to hire 12 new workers. Additional staffing, recommended by White and Abele, includes eight juvenile correction officers, three human service workers and one to manage a team sent to the prison.
White and Children’s Court judges specifically asked the board to add 44 beds in the Milwaukee County Accountability Program, for a total of 68, and recommended use of vacant space at the former Child and Adolescent Treatment Center on W. Watertown Plank Road.
In her letter and in speaking Thursday at a special finance committee meeting, White praised the three-year-old Milwaukee County Accountability Program at the detention center as a “significant reform” providing judges with an alternative to sentencing youth to the troubled state-run prison north of Wausau.
The program, known as MCAP, was limited to 12 beds in a separate unit at the Children’s Court Center through December. MCAP doubled in size last month when a second unit for 12 boys opened.
White and Tom Wanta, administrator of the Children’s Court Center, recommended adding space for another 22 boys in the program at a secure unit. The program also should add separate secure space for 22 girls, a first, that would bring the total capacity of MCAP to 68.
At the finance committee meeting before the board vote, Supervisor James Schmitt thanked White for her recommendations.
“Let’s get moving,” Schmitt said.