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Give Every Kid A Chance: 
Abolishing Wisconsin's Current Juvenile Justice System and Creating a System that Properly Treats Youth of Color 

PDF of this Issue Guide

Wisconsin's youth deserve a chance to live up to their full potential to become productive and contributing members of our community. And that includes youth involved in the juvenile justice system. They deserve the investment in time and money to reform the youth justice system to be one that supports them by reducing our reliance on punitive responses to delinquency and rather, to focus our policies and practices on diversion programs, educational opportunities, community and family supports, and trauma-informed care. It is also vital that we acknowledge the disproportionate and harmful impact that the system has on youth of color, often exacerbating already existing historical and systemic disadvantages in access to opportunity faced by these same youth. Our communities, our schools, our economy, and our state’s collective well-being will be better when the juvenile justice system operates with greater compassion and fairness toward youth of color. 

In order to make progress toward this goal, Wisconsin needs lawmakers who will stand up for racial justice and advance policies that promote racial equity. Wisconsin voters have the power to elect candidates that will do just that but first, voters should take the time to better understand the issues that affect communities of color and the solutions that may help in address racial disparities, one of these issues is working to improve the youth justice system and ultimately work toward eliminating the need for incarceration and detention all together.

Candidates running for public office in Wisconsin need to pursue policies that will ensure youth of color get a second chance. Specifically, we urge candidates to consider:

  • Close Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls and reform the system. Large correctional institutions do not align with best-practice in regard to youth. Additionally, the current circumstances within these institutions are not appropriate for any people, especially our children. It is imperative that juvenile justice leaders in Wisconsin work to understand and implement trauma-informed, evidence-based practices that focus on rehabilitation of youth, rather than punitive consequences. This process begins by closing down Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and implementing/building smaller facilities closer to the youths’ families and communities.  

  • Improve Wisconsin’s 2nd Chance Bill. Before passing Wisconsin’s 2nd Chance Bill, legislators should reform the bill to include all 17-year-olds. As discussed, it is likely that passing this bill in its current state will increase racial disparities within Wisconsin’s juvenile justice system. Transferring all 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system will ensure that all youth receive the age-appropriate rehabilitation services needed in order to become productive adults and contributing members to society. Studies have shown that transferring all 17-year-olds to the juvenile system will reduce recidivism and lead to safer communities. Additionally, making this change to the bill will insure that there is no risk of unintentionally further widening the gap of racial and ethnic disparities in Wisconsin’s juvenile justice system. 

  • Work to reduce the need for juvenile facilities. The proposed bill to close Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls is a good first step in Wisconsin’s efforts to reform its juvenile justice system. However, it is only a first step. Research tells us that there really is no safe amount of incarceration for children. Therefore, juvenile justice reform must be a holistic approach that includes changes to current infrastructure, as well as investments in evidence-based programs that work to prevent juvenile delinquency in the first place. This holistic approach includes ensuring the following:

    • Every child has access to high-quality early childhood education programs.

    • Zero-tolerance policies are removed from schools.

    • All youth have access to health care: Justice involved youth are more likely than their peers to have unmet physical and mental health needs.

    • Increase community resources for diversion

  • Advocate for more inclusive data collection. Juvenile justice professionals should advocate for more inclusive data collection around data that allows us to track Hispanic/Latino youth throughout the system. That way we can better understand how the system is serving or is not serving these youth. At this time, Wisconsin does not have an organized method for collecting data on Hispanic/Latino populations. This could be resulting in a lack of resources and services being offered to these youth both before and after entering the juvenile justice system.

  • Give youth a voice! Juvenile justice reform efforts should more directly engage youth who have had first-hand experience with the juvenile justice system and whose experiences could help shape more effective prevention and diversion programs. Additionally, youth can be great assets to reform efforts; they bring unique perspectives based on personal experience, energy, passion, and creativity. Bringing youth into the change process also helps them develop into responsible adults by giving them real opportunities to be heard and to make a difference in their communities. Youth are the population most directly affected by the juvenile justice system, and yet all too frequently adults fail to involve them in the change process. It is time Wisconsin makes the changes necessary to meaningfully incorporate youth into the juvenile justice reform process!