(Image by Shutterstock)
(Image by Shutterstock)

Lawmakers’ funding shortfall would mean missing deadline

Republican legislators on the state’s powerful budget-writing committee refused Wednesday to find funding to replace the state’s two problem-plagued juvenile detention centers, leaving little hope Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake will close by the July 2021 deadline set by legislators themselves.

At the same time, the members of the Joint Finance Committee moved forward and funded plans to find most of the new county-level alternative sites for detaining juvenile offenders, but they failed to fund facilities for female offenders in Milwaukee County.

Both moves drew criticism from Democrats.

“You cannot say you are committed to closing Lincoln Hills and not fund an alternative,” said committee member Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. “If it was a priority, we would fund it.”

With the July 2021 deadline looming, funding continues to be an issue. In October, a funding gap was discovered when the state Department of Corrections first presented the Legislature with a cost estimate for the four county-level facilities.  

The necessary funds for those county facilities –coupled with the amount Gov. Tony Evers estimates will be needed to build the two new prisons– is roughly $288.5 million.

Approximately $161 million is allocated in the state budget and not all of that amount has been approved, leaving a $127 million shortfall, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

The budget-writing committee did not address that funding shortfall at the conclusion of its meeting.

Republican members of the committee, on a party-line vote, did approve approximately $102 million for new juvenile facilities that will house male and female inmates in Brown, Dane, Racine and Milwaukee counties. But the funding allocated to Milwaukee County is $8.4 million shy of the overall $23.6 million price tag. 

That shortfall will prevent the county from leasing space to house female offenders.

“All the other (county) sites we are creating are co-ed facilities,” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, a member of the Joint Finance Committee. “This plan is approved, and no one knows where these girls are going to go? That is an issue.”

Sen. John Nygren, R-Marinette, the committee co-chair, blamed the situation on Milwaukee County. He said the county repeatedly submitted different plans and with the state facing deadlines to close the youth prisons, the committee had to make a decision to move forward. 

The county-level facilities that received funding approval Wednesday would house 97 of the 150-160 juveniles currently incarcerated at Lincoln Hills, according to staff from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. It costs approximately $212,000 per inmate to be kept in the facilities each year. 

Problems at the two facilities, located on a shared campus about 30 miles north of Wausau, first came to light in 2017, following a series of articles by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

The articles detailed how a judge alerted former GOP Gov. Scott Walker of issues at Lincoln Hills in 2011. At that time, the judge expressed concern after learning it had taken hours for a girl who was sexually assaulted to be taken to a hospital 15 miles away.

In 2014, the state Department of Corrections launched an internal investigation and six days after an inmate’s toes were crushed by guards in November of 2015, agents arrived at Lincoln Hills. Over the next several months, dozens of employees either quit or were terminated and the Federal Bureau of Investigation began its own investigation of alleged staff abuse against youth inmates.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state has spent more than $25 million in recent years on legal fees and settlements. One case involved a female inmate who was severaly brain damaged in a suicide attempt that guards were slow to repond to at Copper Lake.  

Taylor said every member of the panel should be required to go to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. She said her perception of the situation changed once she went to the prisons and talked to the teens and heard their life stories. 

Taylor said the longer it takes the Legislature to fund county-level alternatives and new sites for the more dangerous offenders, the more teens are missing out on the chance to turn their lives around.

“The problem is, it is not a priority for you to save these children,” Taylor said. “Go up there and talk to these children about what their lives have been like. Some of them have never had anyone come to visit them.”

Under laws approved in recent years with bipartisan backing, the juveniles at the two facilities are to be relocated to the expanded Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison and new facilities in Brown, Dane, Milwaukee and Racine counties. 

Offenders of more serious crimes will be transferred to one of two higher-security sites. One of these sites will be built in Milwaukee. The other was supposed to be built in Hortonia, a community of around 1,000 people in Outagamie County. 

Committee members voted against building a prison in Hortonia Wednesday, citing objections from the residents. 

“The little guy finally won, I think,” Dennis Clegg, an Outagamie County Board Supervisor, told the Appleton Post Crescent, “I’m pleased with it.”

The next stop for the proposal is the state Building Commission, which is chaired by the governor.