Local leaders take up future of juvenile justice in NE Wisconsin

BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - You can call it a meeting of the minds.

Dozens of law enforcement officers, county executives, judges and human services workers from 12 counties in Northeast Wisconsin spent Wednesday tackling a big problem: jail overcrowding for youth.

It's specifically focused on juveniles in short-term, secure detention.

Action 2 News first reported on the problem in mid-March. Overcrowding of adults in jail is taking away space and resources to house juveniles.

Marinette, for example, is sending youth two-plus hours away to Sheboygan, and it's not alone.

Counties across the area are looking for a regional solution and hoping Brown County is the answer.

"We have a problem that we have, to take a biblical phrase, no room at the inn," says Judge Jim Morrison.

The Marinette County circuit court judge and chief judge of the 8th judicial district is leading the charge, inviting stakeholders from Brown, Marinette, Kewaunee, Fond du Lac, Outagamie, Waupaca, Door, Oconto, Shawano, Sheboygan, Winnebago and Manitowoc Counties to figure out where and how to house juvenile offenders and just how big the need is.

They're talking about kids in trouble with the law for things like drugs, car thefts and other serious crimes, who are in custody for a few days to a few months.

This discussion on how to better help troubled youth, which officials believe is the first regional effort in the state, is drawing the interest of Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack.

"I'm here to learn and to listen and to encourage cooperation," she says.

The community leaders are meeting in in Brown County, hoping that might be the future location of a new regional facility to house juveniles in detention, separate from kids in long-term custody at the state's youth prisons.

"We're thinking if we could put these kinds of resources together, we could greatly improve the programming that kids get, so they're not just housed when they're in secure. They're actually helped," says Judge Morrison.

He hopes bringing everyone together in one room makes it easier to determine exact needs of other counties and hash out barriers like cost, staffing and programming.

"What can we do together? And can we improve programming? Because even a bigger problem than bricks and mortar is we don't have enough social work and treatment professionals available to us to provide the kind of service we need," says Morrison.

"Schooling is very important, because sometimes they're in secure detention for quite awhile, and they need to have instruction. They need to have their education to continue," stresses Chief Justice Roggensack.

The counties in attendance agreed to form individual task forces to determine their roles long-term, and they plan to meet again in April to make sure plans keeping moving along.

But time is of the essence, with Brown County's executive telling the group the county hopes to break ground on a jail expansion in 2019.

That would add space to alleviate adult overcrowding and open up more beds for juveniles, possibly coming from other counties, if there's a need and a way to pay for it.

No final decisions are being made, but the group is moving along, already estimating Northeast Wisconsin needs about 50 beds for youth offenders.

But there's a lot more to it.

"Managing juveniles is a completely different world and requires a whole host of different costs and staffing needs," says Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach. "If we can come together as a region and have these conversations, we can save taxpayers money. We can serve the juveniles, and we can serve the justice system in a more effective manner."

While predicting future needs is next to impossible, they want to ensure they have room for up to 25% more youth if state lawmakers go ahead with proposals to raise the age of juveniles from 17 to 18.

"It would put it way past breaking it at this point," says Judge Morrison of the extra youth that would place in the required juvenile-only housing.

Chief Justice Roggensack says seeing kids receive more education and mental health help closer to home is a necessary step.

"We'd like to get them turned around so we don't see them back. That's our whole purpose," she adds.

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