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For years, the state of Wisconsin has failed to protect some of our most vulnerable youth while they are incarcerated at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons.

While in the custody of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, dozens of youth have been abused, injured, and sexually assaulted without so much as an investigation by the state. While other jurisdictions across the country are moving away from large, state-run youth prisons to community based, community driven solutions, Milwaukee County and Wisconsin have not. In fact, Lincoln Hills is the largest youth prison in the country.

Research has provided critical insight into the harmful effects of youth incarceration. Not only is reliance on youth incarceration counterproductive in promoting public safety, it poses irreparable psychological and social damage to adolescent growth and development. There is clear evidence that a system focused on rehabilitation and prevention yields far better results in diverting youth from the juvenile justice system; decreasing recidivism rates; and ensuring that those currently in the system have an opportunity to reunite with their families, re-enter their communities and develop into productive citizens.

Responsibility for providing juvenile programs and services should be in the hands of the county where youth live. Milwaukee County should follow the lead of such places as Wayne County, Michigan and New York City to bring youth home from the state run youth prison and fund placements and programs in their communities.

A key reason for Milwaukee County to undertake comprehensive juvenile justice reform is to tackle the persistent racial and ethnic inequities in Wisconsin’s juvenile justice system. Although these disparities have been declining over the past decade, Wisconsin still ranks in the top five least equitable states, with disparities that far exceed the national average. The vast majority of youth committed to Wisconsin state facilities are African American. In 2014, African American youth made up almost 70% of youth committed to juvenile correctional facilities in the state, but only about 10% of Wisconsin’s total youth population.

There is growing national consensus that the youth prison model fails to protect public safety. A national survey of recidivism data found that 70 to 80 percent of youth released from juvenile correctional facilities are re-arrested within three years, and in several states nearly three-quarters of released youth receive new adjudications or convictions within three years.

Despite such poor outcomes, Wisconsin’s juvenile justice system cost a total of $162,800,000, including $30 million for the operation of the state’s juvenile correctional facilities and $88.6 million that is provided to counties through the youth aids program. In 2013, the cost to incarcerate one youth at Lincoln Hills/ Copper Lake surpassed $100,000.

At the same time, admissions to state-operated placement facilities fell by 71% between 1999 and 2013, and between 2010 and 2014, the average daily population of state secure placement facilities declined 25%. Yet, too many Milwaukee youth are sent to Lincoln Hills and fail to receive the rehabilitative services necessary to go back to their communities successfully.

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