“The President’s Perspective”
By Alderman Ashanti Hamilton
Common Council President City of Milwaukee
This past week, Milwaukee County made a great step in the right direction on the issue of Youth Justice Reform. In submitting a proposal to the State of Wisconsin for their Secure Residential Care Centers for Children and Youth, they have embodied many of the practices that the community has articulated a desire for over the past few months. I want to take this opportunity to support the County’s efforts to better serve our young people and highlight how important it is that we are on board as a community.
We know that the factors leading youth into the system are broad and all encompassing. Rather than simply punishing the symptoms of the trauma and hardship that our children experience, we need to use our corrections systems as a vehicle to providing healing and services. Traditional prison structures can never bring about these outcomes, and the County has recognized that a residential treatment and re-engagement model is the most evidence-based method to supporting the youth they serve. With the changes they are proposing to the Vel R. Phillips Center and addition of new sites, these facilities will provide educational and vocational training; programming and recreation, family and community visits; medical care, and new security technology. In addition, they are looking to support a continuum of care that validates and values each individual’s culture, race, and ethnicity. This is what caring for our children must look like – even if they have made mistakes.
Instead of having a massive building that looks like a Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake, these smaller residential spaces will allow youth to understand that they are a part of a connected community and not removed from the society that they will one day return to. If you remove any semblance of a societal connection and value from kids, they will internalize that and never allow themselves to fully reconnect.
We are moving in the right direction away from institutionalizing our youth, but there is more progress to make. This strategy cannot live and function solely in Milwaukee County. We must advocate for the State Department of Corrections to implement a model of smaller, residential care facilities that offer comprehensive services rather than simply making prettier prisons. That is the only way that we can truly use our justice system to bring redemption.
Alongside the County’s new strategy must come a re-adjustment of our community’s mindset. We have to operate under the reality that our neighborhoods are stronger when our kids are given the resources that they need. Our advocacy must be in the best interests of the young people who have made a mistake, but can absolutely be redeemed. We should welcome the opportunity to have these children served in our community and our City. As my office continues to support the work of Youth Justice Milwaukee and the larger statewide efforts to reform the way that we do youth justice, the needs of those we serve must be paramount. For in taking care of their needs, we gain many of the things that we desire for ourselves.
Young people respecting their neighbors and elders; kids succeeding in school and staying away from criminal activity; less violence in our neighborhoods. These outcomes are the result of children being resourced well. We have the ability to do that with our Youth Justice system.
Aside from creating a stronger society, we know what our children deserve. Love, guidance, opportunity, and healing are essential pieces to a successful childhood and these are not guarantees. When we have an opportunity to provide these elements of support to our youth, it is critical that we do not let these chances pass us by. I am proud to advocate for the County’s proposal and hope that everyone in the community will join me in advocating for what is best for our next generation.