After allegations of physical abuse and a lawsuit over the facility’s use of pepper spray and solitary confinement on inmates, Gov. Scott Walker changed his stance on the troubled youth prisons and announced this month the closing of Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls.
Walker plans to convert Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake into a prison for adult inmates and build five smaller youth facilities around the state that focus on rehabilitation and trauma-informed care — a step that has received bipartisan support. There are also plans to build a mental health facility in Madison specifically for females.
“By moving from one facility to several facilities across the state, and placing a focus on mental health and trauma-informed care, we believe this plan will improve long-term outcomes for both juveniles and our staff working at these facilities,” Walker said in a statement.
The funding for the facilities was initially going to be part of the 2019-21 budget. But after pushback from state Democrats that this wasn’t quick enough, Walker urged the state Legislature to focus on passing legislation this year.
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University of Wisconsin assistant psychology professor James Li said the closing of these two facilities is a positive step in the right direction when it comes to revamping the juvenile justice system.
The current punitive approach in the justice system does not emphasize rehabilitation, which is ultimately the goal for juvenile offenders, Li said. Taking this punitive approach creates a worse outcome for juveniles because they enter the system as adolescents and end up going into the adult prison system, he added.
“I’m optimistic that revamping our system by closing down these two facilities and using a more treatment and rehabilitative perspective rather than a punitive one might actually reduce our adult prison system,” Li said.
UW psychology faculty associate Patricia Coffey stressed the importance of recognizing that once juveniles enter the criminal justice system, they are still youth and not adults.
She added that juveniles in the prison system have the potential to change, and are not destined to engage in the same behavior they were before.
“Sometimes we label kids pretty young as if they’re going to be lifelong criminals,” Coffey said. “That’s inaccurate and also really disruptive because we’re not motivated to help people change if we don’t think they have potential to change.”
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UW associate professor of law Cecilia Klingele said the creation of smaller, regional centers is a step forward since children do better in small settings instead of larger ones.
Opening smaller facilities across the state will also increase family involvement, something that is currently lacking in the current system, Li said. The model of smaller facilities is that they are closer to where the kids grew up and where their families are.
With Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, these two facilities received juveniles across the state which made it difficult for families, especially low-income families, to visit their kids, Li said.
“When you open up much smaller, more treatment focused facilities across the state, it allows one of the most critical components of rehabilitation to happen which is family involvement,” Li said.
In a similar vein, Coffey said smaller facilities allow for the creation of more therapeutic environments for both youth and staff.
But Klingele pointed out careful planning will take place when it comes to building these facilities.
Certain regions of the state rely more on juvenile detention than do others, Klingele said. If building a regional center in a location that doesn’t incarcerate many juveniles, there is a concern that the juvenile incarcerated population in those regions might increase, she said.
“A lot of careful planning is going to have to go into thinking about where these facilities will be helpful and where they might create unintended consequences,” Klingele said.
The decision of the specific locations of the five facilities is not clear yet.
Klingele also said training staff — especially in trauma-informed care — is important to ensure that what occurred at Lincoln Hills won’t occur in the smaller facilities. Many adolescents in the juvenile justice system have histories of trauma, so it’s important staff understands why the kids act out in the ways they do, she said.
Increasing the number of psychologists, social workers and therapists will also be important in making sure juveniles leaving those institutions will be less dangerous and better adjusted than when they went in, Coffey said.
While all this is going on, Klingele said it’s important to remember that Lincoln Hills will still operate as a correctional institution for adults.
“It’s important to note Lincoln Hills is being closed as a juvenile facility, but it won’t be closed as a correctional institution,” Klingele said. “In the backdrop of this, we have a growing state adult prison population, and that’s an independent concern.”