Gov. Tony Evers has signaled support for a bill that passed the Assembly late Thursday to fund a new juvenile prison to replace the state’s embattled Lincoln Hills facility.
After initially indicating that the bill, which unanimously passed the Senate earlier this week, was unlikely to come before the Assembly before it adjourned for the session, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, announced Thursday that a vote would be held after former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who is running for governor, urged him to take it up.
The amended version of the bill, which now includes language to allow for local site approval and to convert the Irma facility to an adult prison, passed the Assembly unanimously and heads back to the Senate for final approval.
“For years, Republicans playing politics have stood in the way of our work to close Lincoln Hills and get our kids closer to home safely and responsibly,” Evers, a Democrat, tweeted Friday. “This bipartisan bill is a step in the right direction — let’s find common ground and do what’s right. Let’s get this done.”
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The bill would authorize nearly $42 million in borrowing to build a juvenile correctional facility to replace the Lincoln Hills facility, which in the last decade has faced reports of child neglect, violent outbursts from inmates, use of pepper spray to cause bodily harm and intimidation of witnesses.
Bill author Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said the bill represents years of work and the amendments allowing for local input on the next facility, as well as using Lincoln Hills as an adult prison, make the final measure stronger. He said the Senate is likely to take up the bill in early March, before the chamber adjourns for the year.
“I see no reason why it wouldn’t come back to us and we wouldn’t concur with the amendments,” he said.
Vos said earlier this week the bill was unlikely to get a vote because it does not specify where the new Milwaukee County facility would be located, but changed his mind Thursday after Kleefisch, who served under former Gov. Scott Walker, sent Vos a letter asking him to hold a vote on the bill.
The bipartisan bill comes nearly four years after Walker signed a measure authorizing the state to shut Lincoln Hills by January 2021 and replace it with smaller, more regional facilities. Evers in 2019 signed into law a bill extending the closure date to July 2021, a deadline he later said was unrealistic.
“We must finish the job that we started,” Kleefisch wrote in the letter.
“Passing this bill to create an additional facility for juvenile offenders, along with the assurance that we keep the existing facility operational to house more adult offenders, is a step in the direction toward safer communities,” she wrote. “We need to lock up violent criminals. This is a good first step in doing that.”
Evers, who is seeking a second term this fall, has pledged to close Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls in northern Wisconsin. He included in his two budget proposals plans to create replacement sites for Lincoln Hills, but each was rejected by legislative Republicans.
Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake became the state’s primary prisons for juvenile offenders after Walker and the Republican Legislature in 2011 closed two other facilities in southeastern Wisconsin as a cost-saving measure. Several incidents of abuse have resulted in the state paying out millions of dollars in settlements.
Alleged abuses uncovered at Wisconsin youth prison
Follow the Wisconsin State Journal's coverage of the investigations into abuses of juvenile inmates at Wisconsin's youth prison in Irma.
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