Youth justice advocates have been on a rollercoaster the past several years, waiting to see if the promised changes to juvenile correctional facilities, such as closing Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake and opening one or more new facilities, will happen.

While the number of children being held at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake has declined, there are still troubling issues with the facilities, including staffing shortages and the fact that most of the children are hours away from their families, who cannot always navigate transportation and logistical issues to visit.

Conditions Still Problematic

As the result of a federal lawsuit, the facility is being monitored, and reports show that conditions there are still problematic. Visits in May 2022 and late July 2022 revealed that staff turnover, vacancies, and required overtime resulted in youth being confined to their rooms for the majority of the day. Such solitary confinement has been shown to be extremely harmful to individuals’ mental and physical health.

Additionally, many of the children interviewed during these visits reported being bored. While that does not seem like the worst thing in the world, it is a disservice to them during the years that their brains and bodies are developing to deprive them of plentiful educational and recreational opportunities. After all, these children are our future leaders, caregivers, and decision-makers.

Renee Pasciak Renee Pasciak, U.W. Law School Class of 2023, is the student liaison to the Children and the Law Section Board and a member of the U.W. Law School’s Children’s Justice Project.

In August, Wisconsin moved one step closer to being able to close the facilities in Irma when the DOC announced it had selected a site in Milwaukee for the new Type 1 facility. The Milwaukee Common Council subsequently approved the site in a special meeting, though many steps remain before the facility is constructed and able to house youth.

Smaller Centers Focus on Treatment

Having a facility closer to the state’s more populated areas makes sense, but perhaps we should be asking ourselves if having a Type 1 facility to enable mass incarceration of our youth is the right answer.

Smaller facilities such as Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center have shown success with a focus on mental health treatment and trauma-informed interventions. In 2018, a proposal to close Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake and fund five smaller regional treatment centers was put forth, but the Wisconsin Legislature never acted on it. This model, sometimes referred to as the “Missouri model,” has been praised for emphasizing therapy and counseling rather than control.

This approach is more in line with our Juvenile Justice Code, which emphasizes accountability, treatment, and interventions, and notably does not mention punishment. Caution is needed to make sure that we are not simply relocating Lincoln Hills and its troubles to a new facility or viewing a new facility in Milwaukee as an open invitation to incarcerate even more youth from the Milwaukee area. Wisconsin has racially disproportionate incarceration rates for youth, according to the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health.

A Good Sign

Closing Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake is important, and the movement by the state and Milwaukee to approve a replacement facility is a good sign. Hopefully it is only one of many needed youth justice reforms to help Wisconsin become a better place for justice-involved youth – and reduce the number of children who are involved with the criminal justice system to begin with.

This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Children & the Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Children & the Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.