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Closing of state juvenile facilities won't impact county services here

A plan to close two of Wisconsin's juvenile corrections facilities will have little or no effect on Pierce and St. Croix counties because they have rarely used any of the three.

The Legislature's Joint Committee on Finance has voted to close the Ethan Allen Boys' School in Wales and the Southern Oaks Girls' School in Union Grove. The services provided at those two sites will be consolidated at Lincoln Hills School near Irma in north central Wisconsin.

The Department of Corrections has been working on the closures since March, primarily because the average population in the three schools has dropped by half in the last decade. The closures are expected to save $46 million over the next two years.

"We haven't used it for a number of years," said Pierce County Human Services Director Tammy Kincaid, speaking of the juvenile corrections system. But, she added, that could change.

If it were necessary to incarcerate a juvenile, St. Croix County would use Lincoln Hills anyway because it's closer, said Kathy Dunlap, coordinator of St. Croix County's Family and Children's Unit.

The corrections system, said Kincaid, is for "really severe delinquents," a problem Pierce County seldom faces.

Here, she said, authorities tend to treat juvenile offenders in group homes or other local programs. She said in many cases the juveniles' relatives have stepped up to facilitate in-home treatment.

The juvenile corrections facilities are very expensive and take the children far from families, said Kincaid. Her department's goal is to reintegrate the juvenile back into the family and the community.

"When we send them that far away, it's really very difficult to do that," said Kincaid.

"(State) corrections is used minimally," agreed Dunlap of her department's practices. She said a child from this area is admitted to the corrections system only in cases of direct safety concerns for the community.

"All other methods are tried before we'd send a child to corrections," said Dunlap, explaining that's it rare for a local juvenile to be sent away. The county's policy and goal is to treat the child in the least restrictive environment, she said.

Cost to a county for keeping a juvenile in a state corrections facility is now $275 per day and will go to $284 per day in 2012, an increase of only $9. Compared to other costs, this is a very small raise, said Dunlap.

State lawmakers have also voted to let juvenile offenders be held in county jails for up to 180 days rather than 30 days. But that change won't affect St. Croix or Pierce either because they don't hold juveniles in their jails.

St. Croix County has had the ability to keep juveniles in its jail. But because of the necessity to hold children apart from adult inmates, that would involve having separate staff to supervise even one juvenile and that's not practical, said Dunlap.

It would be cheaper to send juveniles to the facility in Eau Claire, she said.

"That could affect us," said Dunlap. "But it's been years since we have used that."

One thing she finds unfair about the changes being made by the Department of Corrections is that it will now offer free once-a-week bus service for Milwaukee and Madison families to visit their children at Lincoln Hills because the juveniles will now be farther away from home.

That service was never available to families in other counties no matter how far away their children were, said Dunlap.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.