By Ethan Duran
The Milwaukee Common Council has approved a zoning change for a new juvenile justice center on the city’s northwest side. The new facility is meant to replace the Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills schools in Irma after years of abuse and misconduct allegations.
The Common Council voted 9-2 earlier this week to allow the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to build a 32-room juvenile justice center at 7930 W. Clinton Ave. DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said at a previous city meeting the facility would be operational in 2026 and would have better outcomes to rehab recidivist youth in the area.
“Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake, is geographically isolated, making it extremely difficult for the youth to maintain relationships with their communities and their families back home,” the corrections secretary said. “Maintaining those relationships is a key component to reducing recidivism and keeping youth from entering the adult criminal justice system.”
The facility will open years after the deadline lawmakers set to close the existing schools in Irma. Former Gov. Scott Walker signed an agreement to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake by January 2021, but the deadline had to be extended due to lack of funding, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.
The department didn’t get the funding it needed to move forward with building until lawmakers passed Act 252 last spring, Carr said.
Around 80 youths reside at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities and spent more time in confinement because there weren’t enough staff members to watch them, a court-ordered monitor report from October showed. They also spent a lot of time in isolation due to COVID-19 safety measures, spent less time interacting with other youths and could only attend class when there was enough staff.
Residents opposed to the project said they were worried about lower property values and crime. Carr said studies showed correctional facilities wouldn’t drive down home ownership or property values. Construction of a correctional facility boosted local economies through transportation, food and lodging services nearby, he added.
Irma has a population of 1,200 and many kids in the Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills schools are from Milwaukee, DOC data showed. The distance between Irma and Milwaukee is more than 200 miles.
Law enforcement conducted a raid of the facilities seven years ago after numerous reports of abuse and mistreatment. The state has spent $25 million in legal fees to settle cases over abuse reports, Gov. Tony Evers’ office said.