Several years ago, I chaired the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Corrections. In that role, I hosted the first-ever Wisconsin “State of the Justice System” tour. The committee traveled the state hosting public hearings and receiving testimony from those on the frontline of services and the administration of our justice system, correction facilities, and advocacy groups. District attorneys, local law enforcement, judges, probation officers, concerned family members and a host of others, shed light on what was working in our justice system and what areas needed work.
We then went to correctional facilities and met with wardens, correctional officers, and incarcerated residents to continue our quest to understand how effectively, as a state, we administer justice policies and practices. Most involved wanted the state to have more successful outcomes in equipping incarcerated residents in their return to society.
As a result of those hearings, I walked away with a list of measures that needed to be addressed. One of the areas of consistent concern was juvenile justice. Those fears have been born out in the many stories, subsequent federal investigations, and findings from the courts. After hearing from countless officials, parents and community members, in April 2016 and February 2017, I wrote to the Governor Walker to request a special session on the Juvenile Justice System. Those letters and my phone calls went unanswered.
Last year, I circulated bills seeking to transfer Juvenile Corrections within agencies, provide for regional juvenile facilities in Milwaukee County, and ultimately to close Lincoln Hills Juvenile Correction Facility. Far too many Milwaukee youth are placed at Lincoln Hills and there is a continued concern for their safety and rehabilitation.
I wasn’t alone, as other legislators brought forward bills. Ultimately, we have all joined forces to combine the best from all of our bills and create a singular piece of legislation. Last week the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety and the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety heard SB 807 regarding juvenile correctional facilities, youth aids, and the need to change the way we operate these facilities.
I know that there are constituents who have voiced their concern about location of juvenile facilities and far too many that have said, “Not in my backyard”. As we work through this process, every effort will be made to listen to constituents. However, I hope people hear me when I say, these are OUR children. We can’t continue to ship them three hours away from Milwaukee and forget them, while creating family supporting jobs for other communities around the state.
This bill is a step towards creating a juvenile justice system that better addresses the needs of the majority of stakeholders, juveniles and community members that engage the system. I am hopeful that it will pass the full legislature and make its way to Governor Scott Walker’s desk. Our youth and staff have waited for relief for years, and they cannot afford to wait any longer.