We were frankly surprised at the sour reaction some Racine City Council members gave to the county’s proposal to locate a new $45 million facility for at-risk-youth on or near the site of the old Brannum lumberyard on the city’s south side.
Part of it may have been pique at being left out of the loop.
Ald. John Tate II, president of the City Council, said the proposed facility would be located in his district and no one knew that — not even himself: “It’s exceptionally frustrating when the alderman of the area wasn’t told this was coming to the neighborhood.”
Except, according to more recent news reports, Mayor Cory Mason and other city officials were told of Racine County’s plan way back in July — they apparently didn’t think the county would move so fast and expected further conversations, so they didn’t alert the City Council. If Tate has any beef, it is with City Hall.
Other City Council members complained that for those seeking to end the school-to-prison pipeline, the optics of building a new facility in a primarily Black neighborhood are not good.
While the Brannum Lumber property — which has been dormant for a dozen years — abuts some residential neighborhoods that include Blacks, whites and Latinos, it is in a commercial corridor and is also just across Taylor Avenue from the county’s Dennis Kornwolf Service Center, which houses the county’s current juvenile facility.
So the new juvenile facility, which would accommodate up to 48 youths from five southeastern Wisconsin counties, is merely replacing an existing operation. Right now, the plan is to build the new facility on the Kornwolf Center site and use the Brannum property for a parking lot, although that could change.
There were reasons the purchase of the Brannum property was kept quiet. It was purchased by Racine County through a broker to keep the price down, and the county’s consideration of the purchase was done behind closed doors, which is allowed under state law. So yes, city aldermen were not in the loop, but there was good reason for that.
More perplexing is the notion that building a juvenile facility in a primarily Black neighborhood was “bad optics.” Tate said council members had hoped the facility would be located outside the city, and that the decision harkened back to racist policies of the past.
That argument runs afoul of the expressed goal of the new facility: That it is taking a more modern approach to rehabilitating at-risk juveniles by working with both the youths and their families.
As a recent Journal Times report put it: “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.”
Those goals are furthered by having the facility accessible to those families, so a facility in the city makes sense since, as Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave noted, 90 percent of the juveniles from Racine County who are currently housed in the existing, nearby county juvenile detention facility live within the city limits.
Put it in Union Grove or Burlington, for example, and it would make it harder for the families of those youths to work with the program.
As Delagrave put it: “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, 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.”
The fuss over the location of the youth facility reminds us of previous disputes in the city and state. The school district’s busing policies that attempted to end segregation by sending minority youths to suburban schools like Gifford were eventually abandoned in favor of neighborhood schools — in part because minority families demanded that they be closer to their children’s schools so they could access teachers and be more involved.
And when the state, in a cost-saving effort, sent adult prisoners to privately run prisons in Tennessee and elsewhere, there was hue and cry that it prevented state families from visiting and keeping in contact with incarcerated family members and left them disconnected. We agreed with that point of view. Wisconsin later ended that practice.
The vision for a new juvenile facility that connects youths with their families and provides more educational and vocational opportunities is a good one — and we hope it succeeds. We would hope Ald. Tate and others on the council get past their pique at being left out of the loop and embrace the larger vision of rehabilitating youths early on and keeping them out of the school-to-prison pipeline.