Gov. Tony Evers will propose raising the age to charge juvenile offenders as adults from 17 to 18 and delaying the closure of Wisconsin's troubled youth prison in his first budget.
Evers' budget will also include $194 million in additional funds to build new juvenile facilities that would replace the Lincoln Hills youth corrections facility — more than three times the amount allocated in a bipartisan law passed last year.
The proposal sparked mixed reactions from the lawmakers who spearheaded the effort to overhaul the state's juvenile justice system last year.
Evers is set to deliver his first budget address Thursday evening, but has shared some details from the spending plan with reporters in the weeks leading up to it. His juvenile justice proposal was first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and then shared with other reporters.
"I’ve said all along that criminal justice reform is an area where Republicans and Democrats should be able to work together," Evers said in a statement. "That starts with our juvenile justice system and making sure that our kids are safe and have a chance to be rehabilitated so they can get back into our communities and be successful."
Wisconsin is one of five states that treats 17-year-old offenders as adults, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Evers' budget would treat 17-year-olds as juvenile offenders for acts committed on or after Jan. 1, 2021.
Previous efforts to raise the age to charge teens as adults have earned bipartisan support but have failed to make it through the Legislature.
"Seventeen-year-olds are not adults and shouldn't be in the adult criminal justice and adult prison systems. Wisconsin is an outlier," said Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, in a statement. "Now is the perfect moment to make this change. With the unanimous passage of 2017 Act 185 last session, Wisconsin is adopting a new model of juvenile corrections and the overdue return of 17 year olds to the juvenile system is complimentary to the reforms begun last session."
The legislation came after years of allegations of inmate abuse and unsafe working conditions at the state's only juvenile corrections facility.
Goyke has led the charge for years on juvenile corrections reform, urging lawmakers to develop a model that places youth offenders closer to home.
"'The Wisconsin Model' for juvenile corrections will succeed," Goyke said. "Lincoln Hills will close without question and we must do everything we can to ensure this transition is done correctly. Wisconsin's youth and their families are counting on us."
Under the law passed last year, the Department of Corrections is required to build at least one new prison for serious juvenile offenders at an estimated cost of $25 million. The state will also spend $15 million to add capacity for at least 29 offenders at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison, and $40 million in grants to help counties cover the costs of building or renovating their own facilities.
Evers' budget proposal would remove the 2021 closure requirement. Teens currently housed in Lincoln Hills would be transferred to new facilities as soon as an appropriate slot was available, and Lincoln Hills would close once the last offender was taken to a new facility.
Evers would allocate $115 million to build up to three new prisons for serious juvenile offenders — an increase of $90 million. His budget would allocate $59 million to add a 50-bed addition at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center — an increase of $44 million — and $100 million in grants for counties to build or renovate their own facilities.
In response to Evers' proposal to indefinitely delay the closure of Lincoln Hills, Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, issued a one-word statement: "No."
Wanggaard, the lead Senate author of the original bill, elaborated on Twitter: "The Legislature came together and passed new model for juvenile justice reform and closing Lincoln Hills. It was the height of bipartisanship. The legislation passed UNANIMOUSLY. It is Governor Evers undoing that bipartisan agreement."
Lawmakers from both parties have shown a willingness to extend the timeline to close Lincoln Hills by a few months, but not more than that.
Goyke said he will work with a bipartisan group of lawmakers "to ensure full implementation of 'The Wisconsin Model' will be successful."