Columbia County wonders where it will house juvenile offenders

May 19, 2018 GMT

Columbia County officials learned Wednesday they have little time and money to come up with a plan to house juveniles convicted of serious crimes.

Wednesday’s County Board meeting included the appointment of an Ad Hoc Juvenile Corrections Redesign Committee. County Board First Vice Chairman Dan Drew of the town of Pacific will be the panel’s chairman. Members include Second Vice Chairman James Foley of the town of Leeds and supervisors Susanna Bradley of the town of Caledonia, Adam Field of Portage, Robert McClyman of Wisconsin Dells and Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville.

County Board Chairman Vern Gove of Portage said this committee has a daunting task: to formulate a recommendation as to where Columbia County’s most serious juvenile offenders will be housed after the closure of the state’s two juvenile corrections facilities, both located in Irma, an unincorporated Lincoln County settlement 132 miles north of Portage.

Corporation Council Joseph Ruf said the closure of Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls is scheduled to happen Jan. 1, 2021. Gov. Scott Walker has said he plans to convert both facilities to adult correctional institutions.

“Counties will have to figure out what to do with our juvenile corrections placements,” Ruf said.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, and the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison, are Wisconsin’s only facilities that qualify as Type 1 juvenile correctional facilities. A Type 1 facility uses features such as fences and locked doors, as well as staff control and surveillance, to restrict the freedom of offenders who are housed there.

To Gove’s knowledge, Columbia County currently has no residents housed in either Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake.

Clint Stark, administrator of behavioral health and long-term support for the Columbia County Department of Health and Human Services, said the numbers of Columbia County juvenile offenders needing to be housed in secure residential facilities has been “pretty low” recently.

Columbia County is far from alone in this problem, Gove said – and in all likelihood, some kind of partnership will be forged with at least one other county.

Gove said officials of Marquette and Green Lake counties already have reached out to him, and officials of other counties have contacted the Columbia County Department of Health and Human Services about the possibility of a partnership with Columbia County.

The question on supervisors’ minds, however, was “Where is the money coming from?”

Supervisor Kevin Kessler of the town of West Point noted that the state has imposed limits on the amount of property tax revenue counties may collect. Is it possible, Kessler asked, that the state will exempt counties from the levy limits for purposes of addressing juvenile offender housing?

“Or do we have to cut something?” he asked.

When Supervisor Bruce Rashke of the town of Wyocena asked whether counties would bear the full cost of creating new secure juvenile housing, Gove replied, “We’ll see.”

Gove and several other Columbia County officials recently attended a Wisconsin Counties Association meeting on this topic in Wisconsin Rapids.

Gove said he’d heard that state officials plan to set aside $40 million to aid counties in the building of new facilities.

But that’s to be divided among all 72 counties, he said – and Milwaukee County is likely to get the lion’s share.

When officials consider that Columbia County’s recent building project has cost more than $46 million, Gove said, $40 million for the whole state will not go very far.

“We’re the ones who are going to bear the cost,” he said.