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The Perfect Storm - Sustained Overcrowding and Understaffing at the Juvenile Detention Facility
By Candice Lindstrom

Until our office was asked to complete an audit of the Milwaukee County’s plan responding to an overcrowding and understaffing emergency at the Milwaukee County’s Juvenile Detention Center, I had never thought of the role a juvenile correction officer or a juvenile detention center plays in public safety. What we learned was that census management and adequate staffing is critical to properly running this necessary and crucial venue of public safety.

Nestled in a suburb of Milwaukee, the Detention Center is a 24/7 facility used for the temporary holding of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 with probable cause, as well as youth placed in a post-dispositional alternative to State Corrections (where youth adjudicated delinquent are traditionally sent to serve a court ordered sentence). The Detention Center holds youth arrested on first offence, youth brought in for violations of offences, youth pending sentencing or transfer to adult court, and youth who are back in Milwaukee County from the State corrections facility over 5 hours away for their scheduled court hearings.


In early 2016, the Detention Center was experiencing an influx of detained youth resulting in a sustained period of overcapacity and overcrowded conditions. The department reported to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors that the Detention Center was overcrowded, that some youth were sleeping on the floor in “boats” in the common pod area, and that there were not enough staff resources to meet the demand of overcrowding without significant mandatory overtime. The department presented a corrective action plan designed to mitigate the overcrowding and understaffing crisis that was being called by all parties involved as the perfect storm. Our office was asked to conduct an independent evaluation of the plan and to examine the Detention Center’s staffing and length of juvenile detentions.


We set out to determine what conditions caused the understaffing and the overcrowding (a.k.a. the perfect storm) and ultimately, whether the implementation of the County’s plan would address and correct the underlying issues that contributed to the problems.

We began our work by touring the detention facility to observe the overcrowding conditions and to familiarize ourselves with the facility layout and facility operations. During our tour we observed detained youth, the utilization of isolation rooms to house youth, and a firsthand account of “boats” on the floor where youth slept due to facility overcrowding (see image).


We interviewed and surveyed detention staff who explained that the County had recently (and abruptly) expanded, using 2 of the center’s 7 pods for its alternative to State corrections program. They also told us, due to ongoing investigations of abuse at the State-run corrections facility, judges were allowing sentenced youth to stay in local detention for longer periods of time pending resolution of court appearances. Staff explained that during periods of overcrowding there is greater tension among the youth, making their jobs more challenging. In order to corroborate the detention staff’s statement regarding youth staying longer periods of time in the facility, we obtained and reviewed current and historical census data and conducted an analysis of the average length of stay for juveniles in the Detention Center. Insight into the placement of youth into the judicial system (and into detention) was gained through interviews with a public defender, a prosecutor, and social workers.

We also interviewed the State Inspector whose office ensures the facility is operating in line with state law and reviewed annual State inspection reports to determine if the facility had previously received any capacity or classification violations.

To determine the extent of the staffing shortage, we interviewed County Human Resources staff to understand the Family Medical Leave Act and Worker Compensation process, and analyzed overtime and Family Medical Leave Act hours used by staff. We analyzed the historical number of staff using Family Medical Leave Act during the overcrowding emergency. We compared historical budgeted overtime allocations with actual expenditures, and conducted a historical comparison of budgeted staffing positions with current filled positions.


While we were tasked to examine the facility’s staffing as well as the length of juvenile detentions, we discovered that the role of these public safety figures can be challenging, that too much overtime is not a good thing, communication and partnership with all stakeholders involved with youth is essential, and effectively managing detention census levels as well as staffing levels and staff’s use of Family Medical Leave Act is critical to the overall welfare of public safety.

We found that all 12 areas outlined in the County’s corrective action plan were implemented to some degree, but there was room for improvement in 8 out of the 12. We found that the plan was largely effective in providing short-term relief for both overcrowding and understaffing, but there were areas that should be addressed to ensure that similar issues do not reemerge.

The Detention Center has little control over how many youths are detained at any given time, and judicial decisions and scheduling matters by State Judges; County Social Workers; availability in alternatives to determine programming; and the State Correctional Facility also influence detention population levels. We learned that census swings cannot be fully controlled, but with the use of alternative placements, census can be managed. Overcrowding was a result of the expansion of a post-dispositional alternative to State Corrections into 2 of the 7 pods, resulting in the loss of beds traditionally used to accommodate periods of overcrowding as well as increased lengths of stay for State corrections youth and youth waived to adult court pending their court hearings.

The State Inspector stated that he had had continuous communication with the detention staff during the overcrowding crisis. We noted that during our review period, the Detention Center had never received State capacity or classification violations. However, violations for both capacity and overcrowding conditions were issued during the 2016 State Inspection.

We found that the understaffing at the Detention Center was the result of unfilled Juvenile Correctional Officer positions, Family Medical Leave Act usage, and staff absent without pay. Historically, the Detention Center had never filled all of its funded Juvenile Correctional Officer positions and instead relied heavily on overtime to compensate, and significantly exceeded overtime budgets in every year of our review.

Results of an anonymous survey to the Juvenile Correctional Officers indicated that the vast majority of staff liked working 1-2 shifts of overtime per month; however, during this storm, 24% of the respondents stated they had been required to work mandatory overtime 3-5 times a month, and 16% of the respondents stated they had been required to work mandatory overtime 6 or more times during a month. Low staffing levels and mandatory overtime ultimately required the training and use of departmental volunteers to help offset the need for mandatory overtime shifts. A review of the Detention Center’s overtime expenditures revealed that historically, the overtime expenses were often double what had been budgeted (see Chart 1 below).


During the storm, the department reported the Detention Center was operating at a vacancy rate of 13%. That said, over the duration of our review period, we found that at times the vacancy rate rose to 20%, as shown in Chart 2 below. We found that during the overcrowding crisis, the Detention Center was at its lowest historical staffing level and, simultaneously, the number of Juvenile Correctional Officers using Family Medical Leave Act was double that of the previous year. In addition, there were 5 Juvenile Correctional Officers who were listed as active on the detention staffing list but were absent without pay for up to two years, having not returned to work following approved leaves.


We also found during the peak of the storm that lapses in communication and job turnover contributed to slow recruiting and hiring. We noted that during 2016 through July 2017 the Detention Center hired 35 Juvenile Correctional Officers, but 32 Juvenile Correctional Officers terminated employment during that same time period. Significant lapses in communication between the Detention Center and Human Resources resulted in extremely slow recruitment and hiring which ultimately resulted in a lapse of 8 months between the onset of recruitment and actual hiring of Juvenile Correctional Officers.


Our report made 18 recommendations, 12 of which were geared towards improving the overcrowding and understaffing at the Juvenile Detention Center. Key recommendations regarding facility overcrowding include the development of alternative programming in facilities outside of the Detention Center, and the return of the use of at least one Detention Center pod for overcrowding overflow and creating an overcrowding and emergency overcrowding policy and procedure. Key recommendations regarding understaffing of the Juvenile Correctional Officers include the placement of the Juvenile Correctional Officer position on the continuous recruitment list, exploring the establishment of a County Correctional Officer employment pool, and the development and implementation of tools to better manage overtime and the Family Medical Leave Act. The department agreed to address all of the concerns listed in our recommendations.

A follow-up audit to the recommendations is currently in progress. However, there are more changes on the horizon. The State of Wisconsin has authorized the closure of State facilities in favor of smaller local facilities and Milwaukee County will need to accommodate. We will need to monitor these conditions as they develop. We calmed this storm, but a new one may be brewing.


Candice Lindstrom began working as a Lead Auditor in the Milwaukee County Audit Services Division in 2015 after spending 10 years conducting performance and compliance auditing for private industry. She holds a B.S. Degree in Geology emphasis Hydrogeology and a M.S. Degree in Geology emphasis Radioisotope G