RACINE — Racine County has decided to build the new $45 million facility for at-risk youth within the city limits, without any notice to city leaders. Several members of the City Council are not happy about it.
County Executive Jonathan Delagrave went before the City Council on Tuesday to present the details during a marathon discussion that lasted more than 90 minutes.
The County purchased the old Brannum Lumber property at 1720 Taylor Avenue for the project. The business closed in 2008 and has been for sale since.
Because the property was purchased by a government entity, the city will lose the property taxes associated with it.
The juvenile detention center will replace the current facility, which is currently located across the street from Brannum Lumber on the fourth floor of the county complex at 1717 Taylor Avenue.
The county obtained a $40 million grant from the state for the new facility, which is expected to serve Racine, Kenosha, Waukesha, Manitowoc, and Washington Counties.
The facility will be called the Racine County Youth, Development and Care Center and will serve a maximum of 48 youths.
Property purchased on the quiet
Racine County was able to purchase the property without anyone realizing it was the buyer by retaining a broker and discussing the matter in closed session, which is allowed by law under this scenario.
Delagrave said the county wanted to get the best price for the property and was concerned if the seller knew a government entity was involved, they would likely hike the price.
Alderman John Tate II, president of the City Council, noted the location was within his district and no one knew the new facility would be located in their neighborhood — not even himself.
“It’s exceptionally frustrating when the alderman of the area wasn’t told this was coming to the neighborhood,” Tate said.
For those seeking to end the school-to-prison pipeline, the optics of building a new juvenile facility in a primarily Black neighborhood are not good.
Tate had many questions about the facility, such as what it would look like and what sort of apparatus would be used to make it secure: Would it have gates and walls? Would it look like a residential care facility or a prison?
Tate noted that Racine already has multiple correctional facilities, including the state-run Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility and the Racine County Jail, in addition to the current juvenile detention center.
Prior to learning about the location, aldermen were looking forward to closing the current facility, which looks and functions more like a prison than a rehabilitation facility for youth — the majority of whom suffer from at least one mental disorder.
But the City Council had hoped the new facility would be built outside of the city.
Tate said the move harkened back to racists policies of the past.
He noted the reluctance of the County to put the detention center outside of the city — an area that is 95% percent white.
Instead, Tate pointed out, an area inside the city was chosen, in a neighborhood comprised almost entirely of people of color, without first having a conversation with the people who live there.
Kids should be close to home
Delagrave argued the location inside the city limits was necessary for meeting the county’s goal of zero detentions.
The county executive explained the new facility would represent a more modern approach to rehabilitating at-risk juveniles, which includes working with the family and keeping families intact.
“If you can’t work with families, and you’re returning youth back to the environment that he came from, and there’s no changes,” Delagrave said. “It’s really hard for that at-risk youth to overcome a lot of the hurdles that got him into our residential care facility in the first place.”
It’s important to treat both the at-risk youth and the environment he or she is in, Delagrave later added.
Rather than a place to warehouse troubled youth, out of sight from the rest of the community, the new facility’s goal is to provide wide-ranging services to the individual and the family.
That is why the location inside the city was so important for Delagrave.
About 90% of the juveniles from Racine County who are currently housed at the county juvenile detention center live within the city limits. Delagrave said that, six years ago, the rate of families visiting their kids at the facility was about 35%. They now have a 50% success rate with families visiting the youth at the facility.
“Creating barriers to get to a site outside of Racine, where potentially 95% of our kids are based, is not okay,” Delagrave said, pointing out that the county wanted the facility to be accessible via public transportation.
However, as Tate noted, if the county lacked appropriate transportation, the county could have done something about that.
“It would make sense that instead of justifying doing this in the city due to the lack of transportation, the county would do a little bit more proactively to ensure there was a robust, integrated transportation system,” he said.
Nick Demske, one of the city’s representatives on the County Board, had been part of the committee that planned the facility. During a county meeting last month, he too wasn’t excited about the location inside the city, but still supported the project.
Rather than a detention center, the goal is to make the facility a true family resource center where a number of services will be provided, such as skills to career, education, and mental health — without any juveniles actually residing there long-term.
The blueprint for the facility includes a space where family members can stay overnight to help reintegrate child with parent.
The old Brannum Lumber property on Taylor Avenue, pictured here, will soon be the site of a new juvenile residential facility.
Delagrave explained the purchase of the Brannum Lumber property allowed the county to meet both the location criteria and facility goals.
The county had specific criteria for the purchase of the property.
Because they wanted to invest the bulk of their budget on the facility, and not property development, the county decided in advance the property for the facility would have to be developed, complete with roads, water, and sewer services.
Additionally, the property would have to be affordable.
The county had considered purchasing the Brannum Lumber property more than a decade ago, but at that time its assessed value was $500,000.
The current assessment is $200,000.
Keeping kids out of detention
Alderman Jason Meekma, who also objected to the location, also questioned the use of funds on the facility. Wouldn’t it be better, Meekma posited, to invest in more preventative measures?
Preventative measures, he noted, were a sure way of reaching the goal of zero juveniles in detention, rather than a new $40 million facility.
However, Delagrave countered the numbers show the county’s efforts at prevention are bearing fruit.
Fifteen years ago, there was 70 at-risk youth at the facility. Now, there are about 15 kids.
“We’re doing a fairly good job on being preventative,” Delagrave said. “That’s something we’ve had some real success about ... We’re using our preventative funding in a good way.”
He also pointed out the current facility has 120 beds. The new facility is only expected to have 52.
How kids end up there
Racine Alderman Natalia Taft asked what sort of events in a young person’s life might get them locked up in the secure facility.
Delagrave said back in the day, circa 2003 or 2004, skipping class could get a young person in the facility.
Over the last decade, the county has undertaken a JDAI (Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative), which limits the conduct that could get a young person locked up in juvenile hall.
With the initiative, there are three events that potentially lead to lockup:
- Missing a court date.
- If the youth is a danger to themselves or others.
- Any incident involving a gun.
Taft said she was glad to see drugs were not on that list because, in those circumstances, young people need help — not punishment.