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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Juveniles Get Embroiled in Court System at an Early Age


We've been exploring the issue of youth violence from a variety of angles for the past week on WUWM. We've met children who've been either victims or perpetrators of violent crimes. Some of the offenders wind up in the court system at an early age.

Fifteen-year-old Glen from Milwaukee is one of them.

"I got caught with a gun, I was shooting off a gun in a neighborhood, a big gun. It was a SKS assault rifle, I bought it from somebody. He sold it to me for lower than what it was worth. He sold me some of the bullets to it, too," Glen says.

Glen's crime -- along with his past record, which included battery -- landed him at Ethan Allen School for Boys. Despite its benign name, Ethan Allen is essentially a juvenile prison, located about 20 minutes west of Waukesha. It's the most secure detention facility for boys in Wisconsin. Glen served two years. Then he was sent to Lad Lake, a residential treatment facility, in nearby Dousman. He and about 60 other boys are living in dorms on the sprawling lakeside property. Coordinator of Residential Life Jeff Pease is giving me a tour.

"So basically each unit is set up with dormitory style here, long hallway, rooms on each side, laundry facility. Each kid is responsible to do his own laundry at least once a week," Pease says.

Lad Lake is a less restrictive place than Ethan Allen, without a fence or locked cells. Pease says the setting helps kids get used to having more freedom as they get ready to transition back into the community. What's also key is therapy. Most of the boys need help with anger management, according to Director of Residential Services, Dennis Neuenfeldt. He says their feelings are often "out of control."

"It's a mixture of sadness and a tremendous amount of trauma -- unresolved trauma from their past histories -- lots of anger, lots of unresolved grief because they've had so many losses, and I think the grief often drives the anger. They can't be vulnerable enough to feel the sadness so they have to be tough, they have to be strong. They have to be perhaps stronger than the people that they view are their enemy," Neuenfeldt says.

The residents spend much of the day in school, often in remedial education. If they behave well, they can apply for paid jobs working on the property, doing things like lawn care and housekeeping. Some earn the right to work in the community. Milwaukee County Children's Court Judge Glenn Yamahiro says the program offers a second chance to kids who commit a variety of serious crimes. Yamahiro says many of the offenders come from unstable families or dangerous neighborhoods. So he says most of the children who appear in his courtroom are "swimming upstream."

"Overall it can be a depressing place and on certain days it can be very depressing. But in terms of every individual child I have a strong belief that there is always a possibility for success and it's a matter of us putting the right things in place and making the right commitment and communicating to the kids that if they don't have a lot of other people that care about them that they do have somebody that cares about them," Yamahiro says.

Stan Stojkovic is a criminologist, and dean of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at UW-Milwaukee.

"The best thing that can happen to juveniles is never get into the system. Once you get into the system there's all sorts of things that work against you," Stojkovic says.

Stojkovic says there's no proof that children who are incarcerated will learn to change their behavior.

"The fact of the matter is most kids don’t get anything out of these places. Some get better, a small percentage. Some get worse, a small percentage. Most are in the middle. It's a respite from the street," Stojkovic says.

Stojkovic paints an even more grim picture for juveniles who are tried as adults for serious crimes, and serve prison sentences of 10 to 20 years. He says every year, thousands of them return to Milwaukee, upon their release. He says they often lack an education, job training, and hope for leading a constructive life. But 15-year-old Glen -- the resident at Lad Lake, who once bought an assault rifle -- insists that he'll stay out of trouble after he goes home in August.

"I don't think I'm going to go back to my old ways. I've seen what my old ways can get me and I don't want to be there again," Glen says.