Backers of a bill to delay the closure of the state’s youth prisons said the new deadlines would avert a potential “crisis” situation and buy counties more time to finalize plans for their replacement facilities to house juvenile offenders.
The bipartisan legislation would put off the closure of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake by six months and give counties more time to submit applications for replacement facilities and have them reviewed by lawmakers. It would also make technical tweaks to legislation that passed last year laying out the framework for shutting down and replacing the state’s embattled youth prisons located north of Wausau.
Wisconsin Counties Association’s Sarah Diedrick-Kasdorf said during a public hearing on the bill Wednesday that without extending the timeline, counties interested in building replacement facilities would struggle to get their plans in and approved.
“We could end up with very few counties submitting applications, leaving us, I think, in a crisis when Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake close and we don’t have county facilities in which to place youth,” she said.
The biggest deadline in the bill dictates when the youth prisons would need to be closed by. Under the original law, that deadline is January 2021. But the new language would delay it to July 2021 — a date Gov. Tony Evers wanted to lift completely.
Evers in his budget sought to indefinitely delay the scheduled closure of the two facilities. But Rep. Michael Schraa, the bill's co-author, reiterated his opposition to it Wednesday during the hearing, calling the bill’s deadlines “extremely realistic.”
“Our troubled youth deserve a timely solution,” the Oshkosh Republican said.
The latest bill wouldn’t spend any money on either the county- or state-run facilities that would replace the youth prisons, though Evers wanted to allocate an extra $194 million to build those new juvenile facilities.
But the Legislature’s budget committee Tuesday decided to allocate just $44 million toward that effort. The plan didn’t include an extra $115 million to build up to three new state-run prisons for serious juvenile offenders, as Evers wanted.
Instead, the committee zeroed out the $25 million that was going to go to the state-run operations under the original bill. Members also approved an additional $40 million for the new county-run facilities, raising the total borrowing level for those institutions to $80 million in all. The original bill that cleared the Legislature last year had authorized $40 million in bonding for those facilities.
As for the county facilities, Schraa and fellow bill co-author Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, told reporters ahead of the hearing the $80 million would be enough to fund three — likely in Milwaukee, Dane and Racine counties.
Additional money, they said, could then be included in the next budget.
Under the plan the Joint Finance Committee approved Tuesday, the state-run institutions would still be enumerated — there just wouldn’t be money allocated to them.
Schraa stressed the state-run facilities “will be funded; it’ll just be at a later time.”
The bill is scheduled to be voted on in an Assembly committee Thursday.