The Wisconsin Legislature passed a bipartisan bill mandating the closure of the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile detention facilities, and Gov. Scott Walker signed it into law in 2018. The law also mandated the establishment of new locations for juvenile detainees to be housed.
Given the troubles at the existing facilities, it was the right decision to make. But without providing sufficient tax dollars to enable counties to construct such facilities, if it isn’t an unfunded mandate, it’s certainly an underfunded mandate.
Although it’s twice what lawmakers initially proposed, the $80 million set aside in the state’s two-year budget for counties to build new juvenile treatment centers may still not be enough to complete the juvenile justice overhaul state lawmakers had envisioned, the Wisconsin State Journal reported last week.
A handful of counties that want to build replacements for the embattled youth prisons — slated for closure in 2021 — have requested more than $130 million to construct the facilities.
But with only $80 million in borrowing provided by the state, the estimated $50 million funding gap has lawmakers suggesting they’ll need to put some projects on the back burner.
“It’s not an easy facility to replace,” said Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, who sits on the grants committee tasked with doling out funding to counties. “The price tag has definitely been coming in much higher than anticipated, so I think that we have to kind of rethink some of the proposals that have come through.”
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers earlier this month signed a budget that directs $80 million to counties, $47 million to the state and $59 million to the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center to overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system and shut down Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, which have been the subject of numerous lawsuits and state and federal investigations for abuses against inmates and staff.
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Lawmakers on the committee aren’t sure what the committee will do, although early indications suggest only three counties may immediately get the green light to build facilities: Milwaukee, Dane and Racine. The state is simultaneously tasked with building two to three state-run facilities for more serious offenders.
Racine County made a $40 million proposal to construct a new 48-bed regional youth lockup.
“We need to do it right the first time,” said Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, who played a role in crafting the bill calling for the closure of Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake. He said lawmakers will almost certainly need to give counties more to fund lawmakers’ vision for a juvenile justice overhaul.
Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave suggested that any scaling back of the county’s $40 million proposal would mean reducing the number of youth offenders that county could accommodate. The county is planning to house youth offenders from several counties, including Kenosha, Waukesha, Manitowoc, Winnebago and Washington.
If County Executive Delagrave says that will cost $40 million — given that we have observed him to be a careful custodian of taxpayer dollars — then that is the amount of funding that will be required.
Three counties have moved forward with plans to abide by the plan set out by the Legislature and Gov. Walker.
To close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake by 2021 and have replacement facilities in place, the Legislature is going to have to put its money where its mouth is.