Reform advocates declared victory today after Wisconsin agreed to shutter two troubled detention centers and take steps advocates hope will drag its juvenile justice system into the 21st century.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced today that his administration will close the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls and build at least five new detention centers that will “align with nationally recognized best practices.”
The two correctional facilities had become for many juvenile justice advocates the symbol of everything that could go wrong in a state system, with allegations of overcrowding, systemic abuse and near-Victorian squalor over nearly a decade.
Wisconsin will spend some $80 million to build new centers and to train staff properly. The move comes on the heels of a nearly year-old federal lawsuit brought by reform advocates.
“This is good for the kids, it’s good for the state and it’s good for juvenile justice everywhere,” said Asma Kadri, ACLU of Wisconsin staff attorney. “This is a process started by the state that will help children recover from their mistakes.”
Under the terms set forth in the announcement, Wisconsin officials will:
- Build and staff five regional detention centers, with a maximum of 36 beds each, across the state;
- Staff those centers in ratios “consistent with the requirements in the Prison Rape Elimination Act”;
- Expand treatment for youthful detainees with mental health programs, including creating a mental health center for women and girls; and
- Work with state and local officials to make sure that new detention centers are accessible but also safely distant from one another (Lincoln Hills and Copper Lakes were both in rural, northwest Wisconsin, while most of its detainees were from Milwaukee, in the state’s southeast corner).
Troubles began around 2010, after state officials slashed the juvenile corrections budget, closed several centers and packed detainees into Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
Reform advocates made clear that their work isn’t done. While agreeing to broader terms, state officials still haven’t agreed to any timeline on implementing promised reforms, Kadri said.
“I think this is the first and one of the most important steps,” Kadri said. “It’s going to bring Wisconsin up to par with some of the modern models. But this fight is not over.”
This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that the lawsuit is not settled.