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Milwaukee County leaders call for juvenile justice overhaul

Lincoln Hills School

Lincoln Hills

Milwaukee County officials are calling for the closure of a troubled Northwoods youth prison as part of a proposed overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice system.

“We need a new juvenile justice system in the state of Wisconsin,” said Hector Colón, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Administration.

Colón told members of the city’s Public Safety Committee on Monday that Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls north of Wausau are too far away and are based on an outdated model. He and others acknowledged that the ongoing crisis at the facility, which is under federal investigation due to allegations of minors being abused by staff, has added to the urgency of the situation.

“Lincoln Hills is too far, regardless of the current crisis we have there, which is horrible,” Colón said. “It’s still too far. From a best practices perspective, from a discharge planning perspective, it’s not the right model. It’s not the right model today, it wasn’t the correct model five years ago, quite frankly.”

The state closed a separate youth facility, Ethan Allen School in Waukesha County, in 2011 and instead sent all young male offenders to Lincoln Hills. At the same time, Southern Oaks in Racine County was closed, with girls to be placed at the Copper Lake facility on the Lincoln Hills grounds.

Colón said the county’s proposal involves a regional plan that is far more focused on treatment, education and behavioral health. Officials are developing a local residential treatment facility and are working with a provider who’s developed successful similar programs around the country.

“It’s closer to home, where the kid and the families live, so that you can have better discharge planning and better ongoing support,” Colón said.

Colón urged aldermen to lobby the state to move toward a “better” regional model.

“What is that going to do? It should close down Lincoln Hills,” he said.

County officials acknowledged that the overhaul would require additional resources — and more money — but did not provide a specific price tag for the proposal.

County officials said they’ve spoken with Gov. Scott Walker about the plan, and will soon meet with state lawmakers from the Milwaukee area to discuss the proposal.

“We could use your lobbying efforts, your support as well,” Colón said.

The Department of Corrections “is currently reviewing various options to continue its transformation of the juvenile justice system,” department spokesman Tristan Cook said.

“As part of this process, DOC has received input from a number of stakeholders, including Milwaukee County, and reviewed various state-level juvenile justice models from around the country. At this point, no decisions have been made regarding any potential changes.”

The number of young offenders from Milwaukee County being held at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls has dropped since news broke late last year that the facility was under investigation.

About 95 young people whom the county is responsible for are incarcerated at the facility, and there are as many as 135 total from Milwaukee, including those in Wisconsin’s serious juvenile offender program, officials said.

Other topics addressed Monday included car thefts, electronic monitoring, social services for young people, collaboration between county officials and the Milwaukee Police Department, and overcrowding at the 120-bed Milwaukee detention center.

Monday’s meeting was the sixth in a series of special discussions Ald. Bob Donovan, chairman of the public safety committee, scheduled this summer to address violence in Milwaukee.