A new razor wire fence separates boys’ facilities from girls’ on the campus of the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake schools in Irma. The opening of Copper Lake School marks the consolidation of the state's three secure juvenile corrections facilities.
Kyle Rogers/River News
6/30/2011 7:30:00 AM Female students transfer to Copper Lake School in Irma Juvenile facilities consolidation now complete
By Kyle Rogers River News Reporter
Monday morning, 12 girls formerly housed at the now closed Southern Oaks Girls School, a juvenile corrections facility just south of Milwaukee, made the 244-mile trip to Copper Lake School, a new facility for girls that is now part of the Lincoln Hills School campus.
It marked the first time girls had been housed on the Lincoln Hills campus since 1994, when Southern Oaks first opened. It also marked the official consolidation of Wisconsin's three secure juvenile corrections facilities, a measure Gov. Scott Walker announced as part of his budget plans four months ago. The consolidation is expected to reduce the Wisconsin Department of Corrections' juvenile corrections costs by $23 million annually, and erase a $20 million deficit -- within 10 years -- that has built up over time.
"This plan is the best one for youth and area residents," said Gary Hamblin, secretary of the state Department of Corrections, during a press conference at the school Monday afternoon. "This saves taxpayers tens of millions while still providing quality programming for juveniles."
Reason for consolidation
Lincoln Hills School sits on an 880-acre site amidst forest and farmland just a few miles east of Highway 51, in between Tomahawk and Merrill. It opened in the summer of 1970, originally to serve youth in the northern part of the state, but the school quickly became a resource for juvenile offenders from all areas of Wisconsin. With the consolidation closing both the Southern Oaks Girls School and the Ethan Allen School, located 30 miles west of Milwaukee, it now remains the sole secure juvenile corrections facility in Wisconsin.
Prior to the consolidation, all three schools -- Lincoln Hills, Ethan Allen and Southern Oaks -- had been operating at 20 to 30 percent of their capacity. That's a testament partially to a decrease in serious crimes committed by youth, but also to the ability of individual counties to handle juvenile offenders with alternatives to placement in a state juvenile corrections facility, according to officials.
"Most youth are being dealt with through social services," Lincoln County Circuit Judge Jay Tlusty said of what he's observed during the last seven years he's been a judge. "Only two or three in Lincoln County have been brought to Lincoln Hills."
"I can't think of another business where a drop would be good news," Hamblin said.
Recent years have seen a 40 percent drop in the number of juveniles at Lincoln Hills and Ethan Allen, and a 55 percent drop in the number of girls at Southern Oaks, Hamblin said. The need to consolidate facilities was obvious. Hamblin said Lincoln Hills was chosen because it was a little newer than Ethan Allen (built in 1959), and a little larger, thus making it easier to incorporate the new Copper Lake School facilities for girls.
There are now 253 juveniles at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake after the arrival of the 12 girls from Southern Oaks on Monday. About 100 male juveniles transferred to Lincoln Hills from Ethan Allen over the course of the last four months. The last group arrived June 14. Even with the added juveniles, it's still well under the number the facility was already capable of housing, a sign of the significant drop in the school's population in recent years. The facility can hold more than 500 juveniles, about 38 at the Copper Lake School for girls, and around 480 males, according to the schools' superintendent Paul Westerhaus.
What it means
Judge Tlusty remembers growing up in Merrill when Lincoln Hills first opened in the summer of 1970. Suddenly, he had several new friends in his neighborhood, he said. The new juvenile corrections facility meant new jobs, and therefore new families moving to the area. New residents meant more money being spent in the local economy and new students in area schools. It's that kind of effect Lincoln County officials have projected for the area again since the announcement in March that the consolidation would create more than 100 additional jobs at the Lincoln Hills facility (before the consolidation, staffing numbers were at 179). Those effects might not be felt immediately.
"I think it will be a benefit to Lincoln County in the long-term," said Tlusty. "This has made me reflect back on all the people who have come through Lincoln Hills."
Lincoln Hills has been a fixture in the area for more than 40 years and now, as the lone secure juvenile corrections facility in the state, the effect will be felt over time as the facility continues to provide jobs that can draw new people to the area, Tlusty said.
A little over 90 new positions at the two schools have already been filled according to Westerhaus. He estimated that there are another 17 positions that will have to be filled. Only a few of those positions have been filled with transfers from Ethan Allen and Southern Oaks, though 292 employees were at-risk for layoff when it was announced those schools were closing. Retirements and transfers to other areas within state government, have helped most of that original 292 avoid layoffs. The Department of Corrections is still working with about 34 employees and helping them find employment, officials said.
"Some people, I think, jumped ship (upon hearing the news of the consolidation)," said Rick Miller, a psychologist supervisor who worked at Southern Oaks since it opened in 1994 and opted to transfer to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. Miller said he was the last psychologist supervisor among the three facilities after the one at Lincoln Hills retired and the one at Ethan Allen transferred to a more secure position in adult corrections.
If the juvenile population at the two schools were to continue to follow recent trends and decline, Westerhaus said it would affect staffing numbers.
"We struggle trying to predict the (future) population," Westerhaus said, adding that because of that, hiring for a position is sometimes delayed to ensure that it's absolutely necessary.
In terms of the impact of the consolidation's $23 million of annual savings in operating costs, that is something taxpayers in the southeastern part of the state will likely feel the most.
Counties currently pay $275 per day for every juvenile they have staying at Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake. That's a figure corrections officials said would have risen to $471 per day without the consolidation and the $23 million of anticipated annual savings. The schools' juveniles come from 34 different counties in the state, though based on current numbers the facility will primarily be serving juveniles from counties in southeastern Wisconsin. Nearly 200 of the schools' current 253 juveniles come from southeastern counties. Milwaukee County is carrying the brunt of those operating costs with 148 of the 253 juveniles at the facility. There are no juveniles from Oneida County at either Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake right now. The nearest county with a juvenile housed at the facility is Langlade with one male.
The high volume of juveniles coming to the facility from the southeastern part of the state is the reason a free monthly bus transport for juveniles' families that originates in Milwaukee will be expanded to weekly bus transports. Videoconferencing opportunities with family are also being expanded for the facility's juveniles.
"Anything we can do," Westerhaus said. "We feel it's very important to keep them connected (to home)."
Monday afternoon, John Ourada, deputy superintendent for Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, took members of the media through the expansive juvenile corrections facility. He listed the things that had to be done in the last four months in order to accommodate the additional 112 juveniles recently added to the facility's population: modifications to bathrooms, some fresh paint on walls, all minor improvements to facilities that could already hold more than 500 juveniles. New fencing (a $180,000 cost) had to be put up to separate the boys' school and the buildings that make up the new Copper Lake School for girls. That is nearly complete. Renovations on a building on the girls' portion of campus also has to be completed, the only other item of any significant cost required for the consolidation, Ourada said. That work hasn't been put out for bid yet, but is expected to be completed in the fall, he said. The building was initially constructed as another dormitory in 1995 when the school's juvenile population was near 500. It's being reconfigured into a multi-purpose building, where the school's girls can visit, set up videoconferencing to talk to family or use as classroom space.
"To bring this together (in four months) is quite an accomplishment," Westerhaus said. "Everybody (associated with Lincoln Hills), top to bottom, has contributed, and for that I'm appreciative. Our job is just beginning. We're committed to making these some of the best juvenile facilities in the country. That's what we're working toward."
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