The Democratic author of a bill to close the troubled Lincoln Hills juvenile detention facility says he’s happy that Governor Scott Walker has announced a proposal to do just that, but wants the process to begin now rather than as part of the 2019 state budget, as Walker proposed.
“I’m asking my colleagues for a hearing on the bill,” Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) told Madison365. “Let’s start the debate and the conversation and the legislative process. This has the support of Governor Walker and (Corrections) Secretary (Jon) Litscher. It’s exciting and I’m honored to have an impact. But we’ve got a lot of work between now and then and I think that has to start in the Legislature.”
Goyke says that while it is vital that Scott Walker has shown he’s on board with reforming juvenile corrections, that reform can’t be relegated to a budget process that locks out the voice of the community.
“This should not fall at the feet of the next Governor,” Goyke said. “I would like to begin the fact-finding and the debates now through the legislative process where the public can have a greater impact rather than have it be a component of a larger budget bill. It’s very hard for policymakers to narrow down and focus on one provision in a 750-page budget document. This warrants its own debate.”
Governor Scott Walker announced yesterday that he intended to allocate $80 million in the 2019 State Budget to build up to six new juvenile corrections facilities across the state. The governor’s proposal would shut down the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities. Those facilities would then be repurposed to house adult inmates in the Department of Corrections.
One piece of the proposal would have some of the most violent and troubled youth currently being housed in Lincoln Hills relocated to the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center this autumn.
Walkers’ proposal borrowed heavily from Assembly Bill 791, authored by Goyke. Goyke has had bipartisan support in his efforts to reform juvenile corrections. Goyke’s bill includes the move to smaller regional facilities along with many other elements of the Governor’s proposal.
Governor Walker’s announcement is a major acknowledgment that juvenile justice reform needs attention. The announcement comes in the wake of years of scandal, abuse, FBI investigations and civil rights violation allegations at Lincoln Hills.
Past efforts and recommendations by entities such as the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Commission have not yielded this level of action from Walker, prompting some criticism that this could just be a political move meant to stave off his Democratic opponents in the upcoming gubernatorial election.
One of the issues plaguing both the juvenile and adult prison systems in Wisconsin is the location of many of the prisons. Most of the prison population in Wisconsin is comprised of urban black and Latino males. Yet most of the prisons are located and staffed in rural, white, and economically depressed areas. The racial divides and culture clashes between staff and inmates is an issue, but more important is the distance between those prisons and the families, communities and support systems the inmates come from.
This issue was front and center at Lincoln Hills where families from Milwaukee, where many if not most of the kids come from, were 200 miles away.
Supporters of the Governors’ reform would like to see facilities built closer to the kids’ homes and community. That way, kids could be reintegrated into the areas they will be released and build relationships with youth organizations, employers, community services and education.
Goyke, for his part, says that locale is important but staffing the faculty for these facilities is critical as well. At Lincoln Hills an often overwhelmed, potentially under-trained staff struggled at times to deal with the kids experiencing the most mental health and behavioral issues. Sending the most violent and mentally challenged youths to Mendota where a highly prepared and trained staff can deal with them is a vital concept that Goyke would like to see represented across the board in any new facilities. Having some diversity in the workforce would go a long way too.
“It is critical that we have a trained, good, diverse staff at these facilities,” Goyke said. “It is immediately apparent at Lincoln Hills that the staff and kids are predominantly different colors! The community I represent in Milwaukee is obviously very different than the community of Irma, Wisconsin (where Lincoln Hills is located). By regionalizing these facilities we are going to have a much-improved transition to re-entry. Having the local folks that are going to watch and lead and mentor the kids be able to begin that relationship with the kids while they’re in is important and results in lower recidivism rates for those kids.”
Goyke pointed to things like the Youth Justice Coalition as a tremendous resource for kids that does great work with youths at Lincoln Hills and helping the kids deal with issues when they come home. He wants to see youth organizations like it have a voice in this political process.
Governor Walker wants to see a number of the new facilities be built near Milwaukee and have the current facility at Lincoln Hills become a medium security facility for adult inmates. But Representative Goyke would like to see it serve a deeper purpose than just warehousing inmates as a relief to overcrowding.
“Lincoln Hills should really be a treatment facility for inmates struggling with Alcohol and drug addiction issues and not simply be more capacity for the DOC,” he said. “I’m going to be really pushing that how we use the facility is as a positive and treatment oriented as possible.”
One of the questions that has yet to be answered is whether or not the juvenile facilities will mirror the types of classifications the adult facilities have. In the adult correctional system, every inmate sentenced to prison is sent to Dodge Correctional Institution where they are processed and “classified”. That classification determines their treatment needs and level of security risk whether low, medium or high. They are then sent to corresponding institutions that mirror those classification needs.
How or even if a mechanism like that would work in the juvenile system once half a dozen facilities exist is still an open question. At Lincoln Hills, a low risk, quiet and potentially introverted youth is housed with high risk, violent, extremely troubled other youths. Bullying and violence exist more at Lincoln Hills than perhaps even in most adult facilities. While Lincoln Hills has been the only juvenile facility, the Department of Corrections hasn’t had the ability to move higher risk kids away from lower risk kids who have a different set of issues, the way it can for adults.
Having Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center back in the fold could help change that dynamic. But questions remain about whether these facilities would simply be region-based or whether there could be facilities designed specifically for youths dealing with more violent and high-risk issues.
Some Democratic leaders are skeptical of Governor Walker’s sincerity. Representative Chris Taylor said that Walker is just using the kids and staff at Lincoln Hills as pawns in a campaign gimmick and that she is not fully convinced that this is as real for the Governor as it should be.
Representative Taylor pointed out that the Governor has systematically failed the juveniles and staff members at Lincoln Hills with what she calls incompetent leadership and serious understaffing.
“Democrats have put forth solutions for years that would ensure the safety and humane treatment of everyone at the facility-those proposals have been consistently ignored by Republican legislators and the Walker Administration,” Taylor said in a press release.
Yet, others like Evan Goyke recognize that while the past has been full of failures and even this latest announcement isn’t great unless done correctly, it is still the right thing for the Governor and DOC Secretary Litscher to be behind and that now is the time to capitalize on that support.
“It’s not enough to just do this,” Goyke told Madison365. “We gotta do it right. The only way you get big change right is to have a broad and diverse set of people at the table so that we have the best possible juvenile corrections system. That means we need to get as much input as possible to make sure we get it right. We need to have standalone legislative hearings and not have it be buried in a budget next year. This is step one in a long and important process.”