By Dylan Deprey
MADISON, Wis. — It seems the ongoing Federal investigations and pending lawsuits at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Youth Prisons could see more setbacks as the Assembly Corrections Committee has approved two Republican bills that could send more kids to the troubled youth prisons for longer sentences.
The Committee voted, 6-2, in favor of the “Violence Prevention Package,” on May 30, 2017.
State Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, and State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin introduced the Victim Prevention Package back in late January 2017.
Assemby Bill 87 removes the three-year maximum for Serious Juvenile Offender Program. Assembly Bill 90 allows judges more discretion to expand the list of crimes and include all felonies when sentencing juveniles.
Though Committee Democrats said that Lincoln Hills was flawed and the bills would place more kids there longer for lesser crimes, Rep. Bob Gannon, R-West Bend, said his sympathy meter was broken. He added the only way to control crime was to get “dirtballs off the street,” according to the Associated Press.
Youth Justice Milwaukee (YJM), a coalition of community organizations, youth advocates and family members of youth involved in the juvenile justice system have continued to call on state officials to stop sending Wisconsin’s youth to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
“The committee’s vote today is a slap in the face to the very communities these lawmakers were elected to represent and Rep. Gannon’s callous response demonstrates just how little he understands the issues facing our kids and our communities,” said Jeff Roman, YJM founding member.
Roman said YJM was all for keeping kids accountable for their actions, but when it costed nearly $100,000 to keep one youth at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, it was basically funneling millions of taxpayers’ dollars into a broken facility.
He added that keeping youth locked up longer would not improve their chances of successful rehabilitation, and were more likely to re-offend due to the lack of support received while incarcerated.
“If they’re held accountable in a way that is supportive and rehabilitative, versus punitive and discriminatory, the likelihood of them being able to succeed, recover and then reintegrate back into the community, in a way they’re productive is much more likely,” Roman said.
Youth prison reform groups across the country have called for community-based alternatives that focus on improving the entire person in their environment to become a more productive member in society.
Local elected officials, including Mayor Tom Barrett and Sen. Lena have called for both reforms and the closing of Lincoln Hills.
In early May 2017, Aldwoman Chantia Lewis recounted her story of an attempted armed carjacking in Nov. 2016
“It was an extremely traumatic and terrifying experience, and it is entirely by God’s Grace that my situation didn’t end tragically. The perpetrator opened my car door and pointed a gun to my head. Luckily, he saw my children in the back, and decided against trying to drag me out and take the vehicle,” Lewis said in the statement.
Lewis used her story to acknowledge that Assembly Bill 92, which increased penalties and prison time for carjackings, was specifically meant to crack down on juvenile offenders and would do more harm than good.
“I firmly believe that this bill and others that have also been proposed — meant to crack down on young and juvenile offenders — are not going to make us safer in Milwaukee. They will result in us sending more of our young people to a place that is not structured or designed to produce outcomes that will make our community safer.”
Now, that the bills have made their way through committee, they will move to the Senate for a vote later this summer.
Roman asked elected officials from around the state to educate themselves on alternative community based measures and to take a trip to Milwaukee.
“I’m not saying we don’t hold these young people accountable,” Roman said. “Let’s have a conversation not what the kids are doing bad, but let’s talk about the environment they grew up in and the roles and responsibilities we’ve contributed to this person making these decisions.”