Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 9, 2018
by Jeff Roman and Sharlen Moore
Whatever his real motivations are for proposing to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake in his fiscal year 2019 budget, Gov. Scott Walker has finally come around to the obvious conclusion that Wisconsin’s notoriously dangerous youth prisons — which lawsuits and federal investigations have repeatedly identified as abusive and obsolete — need to close. In response to pressure from the community, Walker has tacitly admitted that locking up Wisconsin’s kids in these treacherous facilities is unacceptable.
As far back as 2011, a circuit court judge wrote a letter to the governor, and reflected that the conditions were so bad that he would “think long and hard before sending another youth” to that place. We need more judges to take a stand and refuse to send young people into that environment.
And why wait to close it? Walker should take immediate steps to shutter these institutions. There is no reason to keep young people in a facility that uses solitary confinement, restraints and pepper spray and simply warehouses young people in cells for up to 23 hours a day instead of providing real rehabilitation. Wisconsin’s youth prisons have an atrocious recidivism rate — more than 60% of first-time offenders end up reoffending within three years of release — a direct result of taking this wrong approach to rehabilitation.
That’s why any delay in closing these failed facilities and investing in community alternatives that are proven to work better is unacceptable. An extra year or two might not seem like a big deal for those used to the glacial pace of statehouse politics, but for youth, the consequences of waiting are potentially life-changing. A young person who spends an extra year in Lincoln Hills is put that much further behind on his or her path to recovery – and is in even more danger of falling into the path of recidivism and adult prison. Young people who make a mistake could wind up in an oversized, outdated facility that further traumatizes them instead of at an effective community-based treatment program that can help them get back on track.
The fact that in Wisconsin young people of color — largely from Milwaukee — are being locked up at a rate more than 16 times the national average means that the onus is on us to act fast if we are to stand true to our values and begin to chip away at the vast racial disparities in our criminal justice system.
The reasons to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake — and close them quickly — are clear. But we also must work carefully to create a more effective youth justice system for the future and not repeat past mistakes.
Governor Walker’s proposal, which entails closing the large prisons and replacing them with several smaller facilities, is on the right track. But the members of the community who are most impacted by the youth justice system — the advocates, families and youth themselves who have been fighting for a better system for years — need a seat at the table and have a voice in the process of transforming youth justice in Wisconsin.
There is a path forward. Instead of youth prisons, we envision a system that strives to keep young people at home, with their families and support systems that can actually help them heal. Youth should only be removed from home as a last resort. In rare circumstances where we need secure placements, these facilities should be small — no more than 15 beds — and therapeutic in nature.
The public supports this approach. In fact, 75% of Wisconsinites support community-based alternatives that emphasize a young person’s wellbeing over large institutions and prisons. Even more support rehabilitation plans that involve a youth’s family in treatment, an acknowledgment of the significant role that community support can play in recovery.
We have a unique opportunity to move forward and adopt an approach to reforming Wisconsin’s youth justice system that values the input of impacted communities and gets us better outcomes. This is the hallmark of strong, inclusive, people-centered leadership that the citizens of Wisconsin expect. Let’s do this now.
Jeffery Roman and Sharlen Moore are the co-founders of Youth Justice Milwaukee, a broad-based campaign advocating for community-based, family-centered, restorative programs.