State Building Commission approves $15.2 million for Milwaukee County juvenile justice center plan

Leaves $8 million funding gap

Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center at 10201 W. Watertown Plank Road.

Last updated on March 4th, 2020 at 12:04 pm

The state building commission recently approved $15.2 million for Milwaukee County’s proposed renovation of its Wauwatosa youth detention center to house youth currently living at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls.

The county had requested $23.6 million for its plan to convert several beds at Vel R. Phillips Youth Detention Center, 10201 W. Watertown Plank Road, into secure residential beds for non-serious juvenile offenders from the Milwaukee area when Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake close. The county plans to contribute $1.2 million to the project.

Mary Jo Meyers, director of the county Department of Health and Human Services, said the county’s facilities staff and architects will now need to reassess its plans in light of the roughly $8 million funding gap.

Four counties, including Milwaukee, Racine, Brown and Dane, have submitted project and funding requests to the state to run facilities that would house youth offenders in anticipation of the closing of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake in 2021.

The building commission this week approved a total of $102.5 million in grants to support the counties’ four proposals. Racine County was awarded $40 million; Brown $40.8 million and Dane $6.5 million.

“These facilities will enable youth to receive trauma-informed, evidence-based resources, while bringing the youth at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools closer to home,” Gov. Tony Evers said. “I want to again share my support and gratitude to Brown, Dane, Milwaukee, and Racine counties and the many stakeholders who have worked diligently with us to move the needle on youth justice reform in our state.”

Separate from the county’s proposal, Evers announced last year that a state-run detention facility for those deemed serious juvenile offenders would be built near Teutonia Avenue and Mill Road on Milwaukee’s north side. The future of that plan, which has drawn opposition from residents in the area and neighboring Glendale, is uncertain after the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted in February against funding the facility.

Milwaukee County’s plans for housing non-serious juvenile offenders have morphed over the past two years in response to fluctuating state deadlines and funding.

Initially, the county announced a $41 million proposal to build a new youth secure residential care center in Milwaukee and renovate the Vel Phillips center. Later, it dropped the plans for building a new building, and instead sought $41.8 million from the state to remodel Vel Phillips and work with community partners to establish beds at their facilities.

The county ultimately scaled back the proposal to its current $23.6 million version, after the grant committee tasked with reviewing counties’ proposals asked them to reduce their requests.

While its plans have been in flux, Meyers said the county continues to work to bring incarcerated youth back to the community. The remote location of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake in Irma, more than a four-hour drive from Milwaukee, has been a common criticism of the state’s current juvenile justice system. About 90% of current Lincoln Hills inmates are from the city of Milwaukee.

The county has been working over the past eight years on juvenile justice reform to reduce the number of people entering the system and improve the outcomes for those who do, including reducing recidivism. It currently costs about $140,000 annually to house a child in a correctional facility. Meanwhile, about 70-80% of youth are re-arrested after their release.

“As always, we’re really committed to bringing youth back as soon as we can in a way that’s safe for them and the community,” Meyers said. “We are very committed to creating a new system focused on youth justice reform, using restorative justice. We’re looking at what’s working in other states and making sure Wisconsin is using best practices.”

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