Op-ed: Stop Sending Our Kids to Lincoln Hills

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
By Jeff Roman and Sharlen Moore
February 16, 2017

“I felt like my son was a caged dog, not a child or a man.”

That’s how a mother described her son’s experience at Lincoln Hills School for Boys. Sadly, her heartbreaking story is all too common. Dozens of boys – the majority young boys of color– live at the facility, which remains under federal investigation for rampant verbal, physical, medical and sexual abuse.

Accounts like these show why sending more kids to prison is not the answer. Yet earlier this month, WI Senator Leah Vukmir and Representative Joe Sanfelippo introduced a reckless bill that would do just that: send more kids to prison for longer periods of time and for a larger number of offenses.  Their deceptively titled, “Victim Prevention Package” purports to keep communities safe by keeping children in conflict with the law off the streets and behind bars, but in reality will do just the opposite.

Keeping our communities safe, means keeping kids close to their families. With the right support system, overwhelming evidence shows that communities are the best place for young people to explore their strengths, get the help they need and ultimately thrive.  But this bill implies these kids do not belong in their own communities, and does not recognize them as scapegoats who have been cast aside by a traumatizing and discriminatory system.  That’s a harmful message to be spreading and one we urge lawmakers to reject.

Wisconsinites agree that there’s a better solution: a new poll from Youth Justice Milwaukee found that 75 percent of Wisconsinites favor keeping young people out of harmful, ineffective prisons like Lincoln Hills and Cooper Lake, and instead prefer community-based alternatives that are proven to lead to better outcomes. Not only does an overwhelming majority support involving youths’ families in their treatment and rehabilitation, they  also believe that providing financial incentives for states and cities to invest in alternatives to youth incarceration, such as intensive rehabilitation, education, job training and community services, will give youth the opportunity to repair harm to victims and communities.

The racial disparities also cannot be ignored. Wisconsin is one of the least equitable states in the country, incarcerating black youth at a rate that is 16 times higher than the national average. This disproportionality should not be tolerated.

When three-quarters of all children sent to youth prisons are back behind bars within three years of release, or end up in the adult correctional system, the system is broken. When it costs Wisconsin’s taxpayers over $110,000 to lock up one child for a year, the system is broken. When the Corrections Department keeps children locked up well beyond their sentences for failing to meet arbitrary progress benchmarks, which are decided by inadequately trained staff, the system is broken. In fact, the system is broken beyond repair. These facilities cannot be reformed – they must be closed.

The way forward is to address these youths’ underlying needs. Wisconsin must immediately and dramatically increase its community-based resources in the six main counties where most kids in the system are from.  We must increase treatment dollars, intensive mentoring, family therapy and youth advocacy, while respecting the dignity of families. And we must do so while addressing bias and fear, and using a racial equity and social justice lens.

The longer our elected representatives wait to invest in alternatives to incarceration, the more victims we will have, the more children’s lives we will destroy, and the more millions of tax dollars we will waste. The right thing to do is clear – and the legislature must get back on track and stop this harmful legislation.

Jeffery Roman and Sharlen Moore are members of Youth Justice Milwaukee, a coalition of community organizations, youth advocates and family members of youth involved in the juvenile justice system that is working to change the unfair and unethical treatment of our most vulnerable young people.

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