Fast Facts: Replacing Wisconsin's juvenile detention centers

The city of Milwaukee is slated to be the site of a new state juvenile correctional facility, replacing the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake institutions in north-central Wisconsin. The legislative path toward this replacement plan took years, though, interrupted by the pandemic and enmeshed in politics even amid bipartisan support. Here's a summary of how it happened.

By Kristian Knutsen, Frederica Freyberg

March 30, 2022 • Southeast Region

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A years-long push to replace Wisconsin’s prisons for youth offenders finally looks to be moving forward.

The Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, located north of Wausau, have been slated to close for nearly four years There is evidence of inmates experiencing abuse and neglect by staff at the facility amid violence against each other and toward teachers, among other issues. The Department of Corrections has paid tens of millions of dollars in settlements with the families of inmates.

A state law passed in 2018 under then-Governor Scott Walker authorized closing the prison and replacing it with multiple, smaller facilities by January 2021. After taking office, Governor Tony Evers moved back that deadline by six months. In early 2020, the Wisconsin Legislature’s budget committee approved funding for four regional facilities but held off on two that would be run by the state and be located in Milwaukee and Outagamie counties. The COVID-19 pandemic struck shortly thereafter and both deadlines came and went.

In late February, the state Senate unanimously approved nearly $42 million in borrowing for a new facility. Speaker Robin Vos indicated the Assembly was not likely to pass a funding bill. However, that chamber did so unanimously as well only days later. Vos credited his turnaround to support from Rebecca Kleefisch, lieutenant governor under Walker and a 2022 Republican primary candidate for governor. Final legislative approval came in early March. The governor urged support for the bipartisan bill.

Another step in this marathon remains, though. The bill requires local government where the prison is located to approve the plan as well, and its location in Milwaukee has yet to be determined.

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