As the deadline approaches to close the state’s troubled youth prison, the Legislature’s budget committee had no plans Wednesday to take up funding needed to expand a Dane County facility to better serve youth offenders, including those with mental health problems.
The expansion of the Mendota Mental Health Institute on Madison’s North Side is part of a juvenile justice overhaul lawmakers passed in 2018 that would close the Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake youth prison by July 2021 and replace it with smaller regional facilities run by counties and the state. In the state budget, Gov. Tony Evers and lawmakers provided $59 million for the expansion of Mendota, but use of the money needs the budget committee’s OK.
The state is proposing to roughly quadruple the size of Mendota’s Juvenile Treatment Center. The center, in operation since 1995, serves serious and violent juvenile offenders by combining the security of a traditional corrections institution with mental health services. The proposal would allow for the treatment of more boys at the site and, for the first time, girls.
Lawmakers on the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee are planning to consider two other pieces of the juvenile justice plan Wednesday: $111 million to create county-run, regional youth detention centers, and $73 million to create state-run facilities for more serious offenders.
Spokesmen for the two leaders of the committee, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.
An Evers spokeswoman declined to offer comment on Wednesday’s committee agenda, but referred to letters the administration has sent to the committee warning that a failure to approve the full $59 million for Mendota would force the Department of Health Services to come up with new plans for a smaller expansion. That would further delay a project that is already behind schedule and was not expected to be completed until some 14 months after Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake is slated to close.
Under a plan recommended by the Department of Corrections, the first county-run centers would be in Dane, Brown, Racine and Milwaukee counties and would provide between 111 and 125 beds all together. The most expensive proposal is from Brown County, which wants $41 million in grant funding, while the cheapest is in Dane County, which wants about $6 million to expand existing facilities. The DOC is recommending two state-run facilities be located in Milwaukee and Outagamie counties.
If lawmakers choose to approve the requests, they would need to identify additional funding sources. While the DOC wants $111 million for state-run facilities, only $80 million has been allocated. And while the state is requesting $73 million for two state-run facilities, the Legislature rejected Evers' request for $115 million to fund up to three state-run detention centers, although he managed to direct $22 million to the centers through the budget veto process.
Editor's note: This story was updated to more accurately explain what funding was made available for state-run detention centers through the state budget.