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As Troubles Mount, Wisconsin Juvenile Justice System is Primed for Overhaul

USA Today-Wisconsin affiliates reported last week the number of inmates at the state’s two juvenile prisons have declined in the last two years.  The prisons, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, have been under increased scrutiny over security and corrective measures in place.  Two and a half years ago, federal authorities seized evidence related to complaints of poor practices.

In addition to the raid, the ACLU filed suit earlier this year against the Department of Corrections alleging inmates’ civil rights were violated by practices such as overuse of pepper spray and solitary confinement.  On July 10, the court ruled the Department of Corrections must revise its practices by decreasing the maximum amount of time a juvenile can spend in solitary confinement.

While these investigations and suits play out, counties seem to be paying attention, and looking at the state prison system for juveniles as only a last resort when all local options for treatment and rehabilitation are exhausted. Brown County, for example, developed a local program designed to keep juvenile offenders closer to home because, as the director of the program is quoted in the article, “keeping kids local is best practice in juvenile justice.”

Counties, however, should not be left alone to deal with the development of effective juvenile justice programs.  The state has two options at this point.  The first is the easier one: Simply fix the superficial problems brought to light by the investigations and lawsuits to make sure the bare minimums are maintained.  The second option is more difficult.  The state legislature should undertake a whole review of Wisconsin’s juvenile detention policies.  The legislature could take the signs of trouble at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake as an opportunity to do a complete review of the state’s juvenile justice system.

The best option is to take action now. In the past several sessions, the legislature and the governor have had the courage to address several issues, like the opioid crisis and the increasing prevalence of degenerative brain disorders—by drawing attention to the issue, assembling experts to study the problem and best practices, and then enacting reforms. They should do the same with juvenile justice.

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