Milwaukee County’s plan to pull its inmates from Wisconsin’s only secure youth prison is putting the future of the Lincoln Hills School in limbo, with dozens of juvenile offenders hanging in the balance.
The county’s move to bring 134 youth closer to home comes amid a federal investigation into allegations of physical abuse, sexual assault and misconduct in office at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and adjacent Copper Lake School for girls in Irma.
If the county follows through, Lincoln Hills would lose more than half its population and half its operating budget, which comes largely from county payments of $284 per day per youth. The approximately $13 million funding loss would mean significant cuts or possible closure of the troubled facility, leaving uncertainty about where the remaining 50 to 100 youth would be housed.
“If we pull out, it’s hard to see how Lincoln Hills continues to operate,” said Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.
County officials and legislators say the state needs a secure facility for young offenders, but some hope the Lincoln Hills scandal will lead to a better overall corrections system.
“This really is an interesting opportunity for people to sit down together and come up with a longer-term configuration of what juvenile corrections should be,” said Jim Moeser, former state juvenile corrections division administrator and deputy director of Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.
Lincoln Hills has already lost about 30 inmates since mid-December, dropping the population to 232 as of Feb. 19. Abele said Milwaukee can relocate 64 of its inmates fairly quickly in the next few months.
Moeser said one option would be to sharply reduce operations at Lincoln Hills, closing cottages and cutting staff and programming. But he said it’s hard to imagine it would make economic sense for the prison to stay open with only 50 to 100 juveniles when it has a capacity of 548.
Another option would be to reopen a facility at Southern Oaks Girls School, which closed along with Ethan Allen School for Boys in 2011 due to dwindling populations and budget restraints.
A third possibility, which Democratic legislators are pushing, would be moving toward a few small regional facilities. Advocates say that model would reduce the chances of young inmates reoffending and make it easier for families to come visit them.
Right now, about 65 percent of inmates at Lincoln Hills reoffend.
“Change is needed and change is coming — that’s a good thing,” said Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee.
He and other legislators are pushing for a committee to study the Missouri corrections model, which houses juvenile offenders in smaller group homes, camps and treatment facilities, instead of in a larger prison. That effort has little chance in the Republican-controlled Legislature, but Goyke said counties pulling their youth closer to home might have that effect naturally.
Most counties don’t have enough young inmates to make it worthwhile to establish their own facilities. Dane County, for example, has only 16 youth at Lincoln Hills. The county’s own juvenile corrections facility closed three years ago because it didn’t have enough inmates.
“If the state could run smaller, more regional facilities closer to here, we would love that,” said Dane County Human Services Director Lynn Green.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joy Staab didn’t give specifics about how the department would adapt to the funding loss, saying only that the department would adjust as the population changes.
Lincoln Hills cuts or closure would hurt the economy in Lincoln County, where the Department of Corrections is one of the major employers.
The only other state juvenile facilities are the Department of Health Services-run Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison, which houses 29 male juveniles, and the 12-person agricultural residential program in Oregon, called Grow Academy.
Republican lawmakers, including judiciary and public safety committee chair Sen. Van Wanggaard, corrections committee chair Rep. Rob Hutton and Lincoln Hills’ district Rep. Mary Czaja, didn’t return requests for comment.