The state is moving forward with an expansion of a juvenile prison in Madison, another step toward moving youth away from the embattled Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons.
Lawmakers on the Legislature’s state budget committee voted unanimously on Thursday to approve roughly $66 million in borrowing for the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center expansion project. Under the state Department of Health Services plan, the center will add 50 additional beds for boys and girls.
Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center currently provides housing and psychiatric treatment for boys, including therapy for anger management and treatment to address substance abuse.
During debate, Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, complimented the proposed expansion of services to girls and said the larger facility will serve as an important resource for children and families.
"The ultimate goal of this is to give our youth, some who have had the most horrific starts in their lives — it will give them a chance and an opportunity to come back and hopefully have a happy, healthy and productive life as they move forward," Felzkowski said.
In a prepared statement, DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timblerlake lauded the funding decision as "an important first step towards reforming our juvenile justice system."
"I want to thank the committee for their action today and also stress that the Legislature’s work cannot stop here," Timberlake said. "In addition to making sure youth in the deepest end of the corrections system have treatment options, investments in community-based youth justice programming and a juvenile corrections facility in Milwaukee are still needed."
In 2018, former Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake by January 2021. Under the plan, the facilities — which have been plagued for years by allegations of inmate abuse and neglect — would be replaced by a mix of smaller state and county-run institutions.
The closure has been delayed, with Gov. Tony Evers and some lawmakers agreeing the initial timeline wasn’t possible. Challenges included funding shortages for the new facilities. In 2019, Evers signed a bill delaying the closure until this July.
On Thursday, Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who co-chairs the budget committee, said the state will not meet the July deadline.
"It’s certainly not going to close in two months, so we’ll be working through that process," Born said.
This spring, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake housed about 70 youth. The facilities continue to undergo regular evaluations by a court-appointed monitor. Recent reports have found some continued problems, including guards handcuffing youth at a rate well above the national average.The facilities also face staffing shortages, which makes attempts to implement new treatment models difficult.