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Youth Incarceration in Milwaukee

March 2017

Despite declines in juvenile arrests and incarceration, Wisconsin still holds a considerable number of youth in juvenile correctional facilities, most of whom come from Milwaukee County.[1] In February 2017, well over half (60 percent) of the youth committed to facilities in Wisconsin were from Milwaukee County.[2]

Juvenile Correctional Facilities Have High Costs with Poor Returns

The cost of incarceration for youth in Wisconsin is high; in fiscal year 2014–15, the state spent over $30 million on the operation of its juvenile correctional facilities.[3] The return on that investment is poor: more than half of youth (61 percent) who were released from incarceration in Wisconsin committed a new criminal offense within three years of release, according to the most recent data (DJC 2015, 5).


Three-Year Recidivism Outcomes

DJC youth released from a juvenile correctional facility in 2010

Source: Division of Juvenile Corrections, 2014 Annual Report (Madison: State of Wisconsin Department of Corrections, 2015).

Incarceration Disproportionately Affects Black Youth

The majority of youth committed to Wisconsin state facilities are Black. According to the most recently available data (2013), Black youth comprise only 10 percent of the overall youth population in Milwaukee but 92 percent of those incarcerated.[4]

Milwaukee County Total Youth by Race, 2013

Milwaukee County Incarcerated Youth by Race, 2013

Source: “Unbalanced Juvenile Justice,” W. Haywood Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice Fairness and Equity,

In 2013, compared to White youth, Black youth in Milwaukee County were[5]

  • 3 times more likely to be arrested,
  • 2 times more likely to be detained,
  • 9 times more likely to be found delinquent, and
  • 3 times more likely to be incarcerated out of home.

While juvenile arrest and detention rates have declined significantly across Milwaukee County, the racial disparity in these measures appears to be widening. Between 2006 and 2013 the arrest and detention rates for Black youth dropped 40.6 percent and 22.3 percent; the arrest and detention rates for their White peers dropped 54.4 percent and 47.6 percent (Lecoanet et al. 2014). From 2006 to 2012, Black youth went from twice as likely as White youth to be arrested for a violent or property crime to three times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime, and four times more likely to be arrested for a property crime (Lecoanet et al. 2014).

Recent Lawsuit

In January 2017, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the two primary juvenile correctional facilities in Wisconsin, Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, on behalf of four currently and formerly incarcerated youth. The lawsuit raises major concerns surrounding the safety of these facilities, alleging that guards in the prisons physically abused incarcerated youth, routinely used pepper spray as a punishment tactic, and held as many as 20 percent of the population in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. This follows an FBI investigation into allegations of abuse at Lincoln Hills that began in 2015 and has yet to result in charges. The ACLU has requested class action status for this suit in order to continue representation on behalf of all 170 currently incarcerated teens in the facility.[6]

Alternative Models Have Shown Success

Between 1999 and 2013, admissions to Wisconsin’s juvenile correctional facilities dropped 75 percent, and that dramatic trend appears to be continuing.[7] Following that decline, there has been a general trend toward alternatives to incarceration for youth. Since 2011, two juvenile correctional facilities have closed, and an alternative education facility (the Grow Academy) has opened (Carmichael 2015, 19, 27). Other states across the country have improved recidivism outcomes while reducing costs and reallocating resources through incarceration alternatives. For example, Missouri has had great success with its growth-focused model, which deviates from the large prisonlike institution model to offer services to youth in smaller settings closer to their homes. New York City has also seen success with its Close-to-Home program, and states and counties across the nation are increasingly moving toward these models as alternatives to juvenile prisons. As incarceration continues to decline in Milwaukee, there is a unique opportunity to invest in alternative models that show promise, working to improve outcomes for all Milwaukee County residents.




Carmichael, Christina D. 2015. “Juvenile Justice and Youth Aids Program.” Informational Paper 56. Madison: Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

DJC (Division of Juvenile Corrections). 2015. 2014 Annual Report. Madison: State of Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Lecoanet, Robin, Daphne Kuo, Stephanie Lindsley, and Sarah Seibold. 2014. “Disproportionate Minority Contact in Wisconsin’s Juvenile Justice System.” Madison: University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.


This brief was prepared by the Urban Institute and funded by the Public Welfare Foundation. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission.


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Copyright © March 2017. Urban Institute. Permission is granted for reproduction of this file, with attribution to the Urban Institute.

[1]Wisconsin has four juvenile correctional facilities: Lincoln Hill School (boys), Copper Lake School (Girls), the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (29 bed secure mental health unit for boys), and the Grow Academy (12 bed, 120-day program residential program for boys).

[2] Wisconsin Division of Juvenile Corrections, Corrections at a Glance February 2017,

[3] Another $35.6 million was allocated to Milwaukee County through the Youth Aids program, which provides state funding to counties for juvenile justice services, including out-of-home placement (Carmichael 2015, 20).

[4] “Unbalanced Juvenile Justice,” W. Haywood Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice Fairness and Equity, accessed March 13, 2017,

[5] “Unbalanced Juvenile Justice,”

[6] Todd Richmond, “Inmates Sue, Alleging Inhumane Conditions at Wisconsin’s Youth Prison,” Madison, com, January 24, 2017,

[7] “Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement: 1997–2013,” US Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, accessed March 13, 2017,

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