Governor Tony Evers announced on August 9 that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) has selected a site for a new Type 1 facility in the city of Milwaukee at 7930 West Clinton Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 53223.
The announcement of the site was a major step in the long-obstructed efforts to close Lincoln Hills School for Boys (Lincoln Hills) and Copper Lake School for Girls (Copper Lake), restructure Wisconsin’s youth justice system, and responsibly move kids in DOC care closer to home as soon and as safely as possible.
The Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) has also recently negotiated an agreement for the acquisition of the site at West Clinton Avenue. Additionally, the Milwaukee Common Council is expected to hold a special meeting later this week to provide initial support for the site, allowing the state to initiate the process toward building a new facility.
“Despite delays in funding and continued obstruction over the past three years, we’ve been adamant that Wisconsin needs to move as quickly as possible to build a new Type 1 juvenile facility in Southeast Wisconsin so we can close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and get our kids closer to home as soon as we safely and responsibly can,” said Governor Evers. “Today’s important announcement means we are one major step closer to getting kids out of these facilities, and we are incredibly grateful that the city of Milwaukee recognizes the importance of moving forward to do just that.”
In 2015, dozens of law enforcement officers raided Wisconsin’s Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake as part of a criminal probe into claims of abuse and unsafe working conditions that resulted in several lawsuits regarding youth mistreatment and the prior administration entering into a consent decree. The raid was the culmination of a concerning pattern of reports and complaints over the course of several years. Ultimately, the state has spent more than $25 million in legal fees and settlement agreements resulting from abuse and maltreatment at the youth facilities.
In the wake of the raid and subsequent allegations, 2017 Wisconsin Act 185 (Act 185), enacted in 2018, called for closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake in Irma as a youth facility and building new, smaller, regional facilities to replace the schools. Despite proposing funding for the new correctional facilities in back-to-back biennial budgets, many efforts to allocate and disperse adequate funding to build the new facilities—and, in some cases, efforts to provide any funding at all—were repeatedly obstructed or rejected by the Legislature.
“There’s no doubt we’ve made tremendous improvements at our state’s current facilities, but the goal for me and my administration since Day One has been to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and to get our kids closer to home as soon as we safely and responsibly could,” said Governor Evers. “We agree with the court-appointed monitor, youth justice advocates, and the community that the best thing for youth committed to state custody is to remain as close as possible to their families, where they can receive the best-possible programming and treatment to help them be successful when they return home.”
The Evers Administration has invested more than $4.5 million in capital projects to improve the atmosphere and safety at the schools. The current administration has also utilized evidence-based practices to improve treatment and opportunities for youth in DOC care, moving Wisconsin in line with the rest of the country by transforming Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake from a traditional correctional model to a youth treatment facility.
According to the court-appointed monitor that makes quarterly visits to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, the Evers Administration has made tremendous strides in improving safety at the schools. A recent report from the court-appointed monitor noted the facility was “significantly safer than three years ago,” when she first visited.
Despite the work that remains, DOC Secretary Kevin Carr sees the site selection as an important step forward.
“This is a significant moment for DOC and the state of Wisconsin, but more importantly, for the kids in our care,” said Secretary Carr. “Everyone agreed back in 2018 that moving youth closer to their families and culturally-relevant programming were key factors in improving the state’s juvenile justice system. We’re excited to move ahead, complete the work that remains, and begin the long-overdue work on a new juvenile corrections facility in Southeast Wisconsin.”
Following the enactment of the 2021-23 biennial budget, DOC began plans to pursue converting the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center into a Type 1 facility. After hearing concerns from stakeholders and the city of Milwaukee regarding the proposal, DOC began evaluating other sites in February 2022. Youth justice advocates, legislators, and other stakeholders suggested the West Clinton Avenue site as one of several possible alternatives for the DOC to review and consider.
The West Clinton Avenue site emerged as a viable site with a private owner open to selling. As of July 28, 2022, the administration has a signed agreement for the acquisition of the site, pending completion of statutory and other legal requirements and obtaining the necessary local approval in the site selection process.
“Ever since we passed Act 185 in 2018, we’ve been working to close Lincoln Hills and get these kids closer to home because we know that’s where they’ll have the best chance at getting the help they need to get back on track,” said Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee). “Despite numerous setbacks from some of my colleagues in the Legislature, Gov. Evers has led the way forward, and he’s never wavered in his commitment to doing the right thing for these kids and for our state. I’m proud of the work we’ve done to get to this point, and excited to keep making progress toward our vision for a better, safer model for juvenile justice.”
Additionally, earlier this year, Governor Evers enacted 2021 Wisconsin Act 252 (Act 252), which provided the necessary additional $42 million to build a state-run juvenile correctional facility in Milwaukee County. Among provisions included in Act 252 passed by the Legislature was a requirement that the local governing body of the municipality of where a proposed site is located “support” the site before the state can move forward with any other steps required to build the facility.
The Milwaukee Common Council is not scheduled to be in regular session again until September, but to ensure the state can proceed toward building a new facility, the Common Council President José Pérez is expected to call a special meeting of the Common Council this week to vote on a resolution supporting the West Clinton Avenue site and satisfy the Act 252 requirement.
“The city of Milwaukee recognizes the incredible importance of not allowing delays in this project and the end goal of bringing kids closer to home,” said Common Council President Pérez. “This week, the Common Council will be taking up a resolution to satisfy the site selection support requirement in 2021 Act 252, which is only the first step to initiate this long-term process. The Common Council looks forward to additional public engagement as the project moves through the next state and city processes.”
The West Clinton Avenue site selection and land purchase, as well as the Common Council’s resolution in support of the site, is also supported by area state legislators who have been involved in several years’ worth of legislative efforts to secure the necessary support and funding to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and to build a replacement Type 1 facility.
“I’m glad to see the Evers Administration has taken community feedback into account, and we have worked together to find a site for this new facility on West Clinton Avenue that works for the whole community,” said Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee). “This is the first of several steps that will bring Milwaukee children back to their home communities.”
Even with Common Council support of the selected site, many steps remain before construction of a new facility can begin, including public hearings, local plan and rezoning approval from the city of Milwaukee, notification to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance.