After three years on the job, the Milwaukee County official who oversees juvenile justice finds his system at a crossroads. The Wisconsin state legislature passed a bill last March closing two youth prisons after a criminal probe and multiple lawsuits alleged abuse and neglect of youth, alarming lawmakers.
But the state hasn’t gone far enough to remake its systems, Division of Youth and Family Services Administrator Mark Mertens told state officials last week.
“Other states have seen more positive outcomes for youth from smaller, more rehabilitative facilities, and now it’s Wisconsin’s turn,” said Mertens, whose agency within the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) oversees juvenile justice, in a release ahead of a state Department of Corrections hearing. “We believe that such a model could result in significant savings and reduce the overall institutional footprint, while providing a more trauma-informed and restorative environment for youth.”
The state passed Act 185 to close the Lincoln Hills and Cooper Lake youth prisons by 2021. Mertens and advocates are concerned the $40 million the bill allocated to replace those facilities won’t go toward creating less-punitive, home-like placements for youth in the justice system, like what’s been built in Missouri or New York in recent years.
His boss agreed.
“It is high time to transform our disciplinary practices from punitive to restorative, and to address the racial inequities in our criminal justice system head-on,” said County Executive Chris Abele. “We owe it to the young men and women in our community to ensure they have the tools they need to lead our county into the future. There is a lot of work ahead, and together we will implement durable reforms that will stand the test of time.”
Milwaukee isn’t the first urban county to try to convince state lawmakers to authorize closer-to-home, pro-social facilities for accused and adjudicated youth. What’s unique about this effort is the active support they are receiving from like-minded policymakers in New York and Missouri and across the country. That’s what brought Mertens and dozens of his peers to a New York City classroom last month: to attend the launch of Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, a new group of current and former corrections officials from across the country, convened by Columbia University’s Justice Lab. The group will serve as an on-call ideas and expertise repository for reform-hungry public officials nationwide.
“What’s so powerful about this group is the fact that it’s people who have walked in the shoes of correctional administrators, former administrators, themselves saying, ‘we should demand more for all young people in this country,’ even those young people who might commit the most serious offenses, even those young people who we’ve removed from their homes. None of them should be in prison-like facilities,” said Nate Balis, director of the juvenile justice strategy group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is funding YCLJ.
In the wake of the organizing conference at Columbia University last month, the group announced that more than 50 members nationwide have joined, and that they’ve been fielding calls from other jurisdictions interested in tapping their expertise. Members include current leadership from large urban justice systems, like Felipe Franco of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services or Wendy Still of Alameda County in California, as well as current and former leaders from a mix of smaller counties and statewide systems in Texas, Ohio, Utah, New Mexico, Kansas, Louisiana and beyond.
YCLS’s goal is a logical next step in juvenile justice reform — to not just close youth prisons, a movement that has already gained momentum, but to replace them with the smallest possible facilities and larger investments in community alternatives.
“We are in a place where we can slow the process down a little bit, look at better alternatives, not just have to have the train moving forward,” Mertens told The Imprint in an interview at the launch event at Columbia University. “This isn’t just about polishing the status quo and saying we’ve made reforms. We have to do more than that. This has to be a paradigm shift away from youth prisons altogether.”
A generation ago, it would have been a shocking admission for a youth corrections official to suggest abolishing youth imprisonment, but many states are pursuing similar agendas. Twenty states have recently narrowed juvenile involvement in the adult criminal justice system, and others have diverted system-involved teens into placement facilities closer to their homes. One thing that’s been lacking from these efforts, maybe slowing their momentum, is guidance from former officials.
Former generals have called for more education funding, police chiefs for more investment in crime prevention programs, and prosecutors for reforms to their own field’s charging practices. Corrections administrators have never had that kind of resource, until now.
“There’s a lot of goodwill towards reducing the number of kids who are locked up in America. There’s also research that says you can help people a lot better if they are not locked up than if they are,” said Vincent Schiraldi, a former New York City probation commissioner, now the co-director of Columbia University’s Justice Lab and a co-chair of YCLJ.
“One way to popularize this notion is to add the imprimatur of youth correctional administrators to the conversation,” Schiraldi said. “We all have this sort of nuts and bolts willingness to go out and say ‘OK Governor X, you think you need to go out and close youth prisons, but you don’t know how to get from here to there — we can help you.’”
Schiraldi said Milwaukee fits the mold of a jurisdiction YCLJ can help.
“Imagine testifying before a government funding body, in front of all the other counties you are competing with for this money, and saying, ‘this just won’t work,” he said of Mertens’ testimony at the recent corrections hearing in support of Milwaukee County’s proposal for the Act 185 funds. “No one does that. This is what we once called leadership — a profile in courage.”
Mertens, his colleague DHHS Director Mary Jo Meyers, and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) have been citing New York City’s example as Act 185 implementation talks have heated up. Schiraldi’s Justice Lab recently produced a case study of the positive outcomes that resulted from the city’s Close to Home program, which created a network of nonprofit-run, more rehabilitative settings for adjudicated youth. YCLJ’s other co-chair, Gladys Carrión who led juvenile justice and child welfare for the state of New York and then New York City, was instrumental in getting the program off the ground and joined YCLJ members on a tour of a Close to Home site last month.
“One of our priorities is helping states that are already moving reforms, but might be stuck and needing to create more public will. We’re helping them understand some examples of what’s worked,” says Carrión. “To be able to come look at a Close to Home site, talk to the people implementing it, talk to the young people living in it, then being able to say ‘How would this look in my city?’ is really powerful.”
Sharlen Moore, a co-founder of Youth Justice Milwaukee who also sits on the state committee evaluating grant proposals for Act 185 dollars, said YCLJ’s support has been transformative.
“I am ecstatic that something like this exists. Mark [Mertens] had said things in meetings about reducing the footprint of corrections and looking at doing things differently for young people, but what he, Meyers, and the county executive said last week publicly was amazing to hear. [YCLJ’s launch] was the opportunity for Mark to say ‘all these other people around the country are moving in this same direction.’ It’s amazing.”
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