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Sunday, June 16, 2024
After months of outrage over abuse allegations, lawmakers may finally close the controversial Lincoln Hills juvenile detention center, should a new bill pass.

After months of outrage over abuse allegations, lawmakers may finally close the controversial Lincoln Hills juvenile detention center, should a new bill pass.

As new bill attempts to overhaul juvenile justice system, what you need to know about the Lincoln Hills controversy

A new bipartisan bill introduced earlier this week would close down the contentious Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake schools for juvenile detention and open smaller, local facilities in their place.

While some see the schools’ shuttering as a long-awaited victory, other advocates believe far too little is being done to ensure the same issues will not arise again.

The state’s juvenile detention centers have created significant controversy in recent years, after numerous lawsuits and allegations of violence, inadequate safety, overpopulation and mistreatment towards juvenile inmates as young as 13.

New legislation would close the secluded facilities located in northern Wisconsin and instead provide money to county governments to replace the schools with local, secured residential care centers for all nonviolent offenders.

A major concern addressed in the new bill was how far facilities are from most of the inmates’ homes, which critics argued damages the feasibility of visitation and disrupts familial rehabilitation.

In addition to location issues, the Lincoln Hills Schools caused financial controversy as well. A 2011 study from the Justice Policy Institute quoted the average cost of locking up a juvenile in a Department of Corrections facility nationwide at about $148,767 per year.

The upcoming bill hopes to save money, while also providing more personal and effective care to juvenile offenders across the state.

"Providing evidenced-based, secure local options for judges was our goal, and this bill uses an existing, but unused, option to accomplish that goal," said state Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, in a statement. "Allowing counties to run local, secure residential care centers focused on trauma-informed care with a low number of beds and low staff-to-student ratios will transform how we treat young people and deliver improved outcomes in addition to cost savings.”

The federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 declared that the main goal of the juvenile justice system was to keep children out of the adult justice system. However, in the 1980s and ‘90s, there was a shift in focus from rehabilitation to punishment, mirroring the types of reforms implemented in criminal justice practices.

There are currently about 150 residents at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools from across the state. Approximately 100,000 juveniles are currently held in criminal justice facilities nationwide and arrests of suspects under the age of 18 occur over two million times every year, according to the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Entering a juvenile delinquent into a standardized correctional institution can further damage their behavioral rehabilitation because of the lack of structural stability and therapy provided, according to a report by the Society for Research in Child Development.

In 2011, the Ethan Allen School in Waukesha County and Southern Oaks Girls School in Racine County closed due to funding issues, causing many inmates to move to the Lincoln Hills School and leading to the opening of the Copper Lake School for girls.

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However, obtaining the staff necessary to balance the influx of inmates was challenging. In November of 2017, 67 of 313 staff positions were not filled.

Since this change, many allegations of abuse and neglect have poured in. The reports were so alarming that former Racine Circuit Court Judge Richard Kreul wrote a letter to Gov. Scott Walker urging him to push for reform after prison staff failed to react to an inmate-on-inmate sexual assault.

“I’ll be thinking long and hard before sending another youth to that place!” Kreul said in the letter.

Since 2015, the number of inmates at Lincoln Hills has been cut in half, largely due to a downturn in sentencing to the facility after accusations of abuse became public. However, this also means that the current inmates, and any incoming future inmates, are some of the most challenging cases for the state to deal with.

“The students we have now are the most dangerous we've ever had. The counties aren't getting any money from the state, so they only send us students they can do nothing else with, the worst of the worst,” said Doug Curtis, a former Lincoln Hills guard of 20 years, in an interview on Wisconsin Public Television.

Out of a staff already spread thin, many have quit or been fired due to extenuating circumstances. This includes Dusty Meunier, the lead corrections officer trainer, who was fired in 2016 after investigators found he trained staff to use improper and dangerous techniques when handling juvenile inmates and had violated facility policy 16 times.

Besides the allegations of abuse, critics have also raised concerns over the lack of proper education resources at Lincoln Hills.

On its website, the school says it offers its residents the opportunity to receive their high school diploma or GED, and resources for reentering the community such as resumes, cover letters, job applications, interview practice and college planning. However, the facility received several accusations that kids were not being sent to class.

“To me, it was a complete breach of trust," Robin Dorman, a Milwaukee public defender, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It’s called Lincoln Hills School, and our kids weren’t receiving an education.”

Research shows that providing consistent education for at-risk youth, whether in traditional schooling or juvenile detention centers, is instrumental for effective transitions out of prison.

Advocate groups also fear the treatment many juveniles faced at the school may fuel recidivistic activity and damage their chances of entering society as a healthy adult.

“Approximately 15 to 20 percent of the young residents are confined in seven by ten foot solitary confinement cells for 22 or 23 hours per day,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin said in a statement about their lawsuit against the facility. “These children are often forced to spend their only free hour of time each day outside the cell in handcuffs, chained to tables. Officers also regularly use Bear Mace and other pepper sprays against the youth, which causes them excruciating pain and impairs their breathing.”

Advocates say moving towards secured residential care centers, like the new bill proposes, is a step in the right direction. However, some are not convinced closing Lincoln Hills will result in any reforms other than a change of address.

“The risk here is that the state will replicate the mistreatment in Lincoln Hills at the new county-level facilities,” said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director at the American Civil Liberties Union in Wisconsin.

In order to improve upon past misconduct, state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, a cosponsor of the new bill, hopes to add a juvenile solitary confinement ban and transfer control of juvenile corrections to the Department of Children and Families. She also has pushed to give Milwaukee County authority to have a juvenile hybrid facility, and institute requirements for medically-trained staff to distribute medication.

"I am glad that what I have repeatedly said and advocated for in past years regarding juvenile corrections is finally getting traction from my colleagues," Taylor said in a press release. "However, it is a shame that our kids and corrections staff had to wait for an election year to see the Governor and his fellow Republicans meaningfully acknowledge their safety concerns."

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