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Juvenile Corrections plan

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, is flanked by a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have been working for a month on an overhaul of the juvenile corrections system in response to years of abuse and assaults at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma. 

The Senate’s leader is raising doubts about a plan to close the state’s troubled youth prison by 2020 and put state and county officials in charge of new facilities throughout the state, saying it may not be doable this session.

While Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, held a press conference Tuesday releasing the sweeping plan to close the state’s troubled youth prison, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told reporters he agreed with the plan’s goals but is worried the changes are moving too quickly to pass by March, when the legislative session ends.

“That’s a big lift before the end of session,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t want to move too quickly.”

Comments from Fitzgerald and other skeptics come after Gov. Scott Walker called on lawmakers to act quickly and pass legislation that would close the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma this legislative session.

Vos and other lawmakers who helped draft the Assembly plan say they want to see their bill passed this session to quickly address serious abuse allegations and staff assaults at the youth prison, and want a vote on it as early as next week.

But Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, and Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, joined Fitzgerald on Tuesday in expressing skepticism that the plan would pass this session. The skeptics said the hurdle is related to timing and not the substance of the bill.

“I think right now it’s questionable whether this is a plan that’s actually going to get done,” Hintz told reporters after the Assembly press conference.

Vos questioned the lawmakers’ assessment because the plan has buy-in from Democrats and Republicans.

“Every major proposal is a big lift. I mean that’s the whole point,” Vos said, responding to Fitzgerald’s comments. “In my experience, if you have the buy-in from all four caucuses, it seems like it should make it a lift, but maybe not as big. … It’s rare when we actually have all people at the table finding ways to get consensus. So I certainly hope that that would mean that it’s easier to get done.”

The plan, written by Democrats and Republicans in the state Assembly and Senate, would close the state’s troubled youth prison by 2020 and put county governments in charge of new facilities around the state, which mirrors a trend nationwide to shutter large youth prisons in favor of smaller, regional facilities.

Under the proposal, the state Department of Corrections would still oversee the state’s most serious juvenile offenders — or youth who commit crimes such as armed robbery, sexual assault and homicide — in new facilities. Those who commit less-serious offenses would be under the supervision of their local county government in secure “residential care centers.”

“Reforms that are fair, effective and evidence-based have greater chance to provide positive outcomes for youth that are involved in the criminal justice system,” Assembly Corrections Committee chairman Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, said Tuesday. “I go back to a (Lincoln Hills) tour early in the session with members of the Assembly Corrections Committee ... and it became evident that a number of those juveniles were being failed by the system.”

Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, said the bill will be able to replicate the outcome of a University of Wisconsin System student he met who was once at Lincoln Hills but was able to enroll in college despite his past troubles and crimes.

“He represents the future of us creating more of that great outcome of young people being on the wrong track but getting back on the right track,” Bowen said. “We will be able to do this with this bill.”

Troubled facility

The proposed changes come after years of allegations and lawsuits arguing the staff at the Irma facility have used pepper spray, mechanical restraints and solitary confinement excessively and in a manner that has caused permanent harm to the inmates there. At the same time, staff at the prison have been repeatedly assaulted and allege an environment that is unsafe.

Larry Dupuis, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union-Wisconsin, which is representing current and former inmates in a class-action federal lawsuit against the DOC, said while the group agrees the Irma facility must be closed as soon as possible, the Assembly’s bill raises concerns.

“Bringing youth closer to home is important, but it won’t work without meaningful state-level oversight and accountability. The risk here is that the state will replicate the mistreatment in Lincoln Hills at the new county-level facilities,” he said.

Walker has introduced his own plan to close the Lincoln Hills facility, open six smaller facilities around the state and convert the prison into a medium-security adult facility. Walker initially proposed for the plan to be inserted in the next two-year state budget starting in 2019, but shortened that timeline after calls from Democrats and some Republicans to close the prison quickly.

Though Walker called on lawmakers to quickly act on closing Lincoln Hills, his spokesman Tom Evenson said Tuesday the governor had “no comment” on the Assembly’s plan but looked forward to working with the Legislature on getting an overhaul passed this session.

Kenneth Streit, a UW-Madison Law School professor who specializes in criminal justice issues and has studied juvenile corrections in Wisconsin for decades, said the Assembly has proposed “a great plan.”

“As far as the timing, the (juvenile justice) advocates are in a tough position because on the one hand you could say every day a kid is up there is a bad day for them but the fact is you’re also planning for the next decades, and you really need to take some time to get it right,” he said. “You can’t all of a sudden build a new (Boeing 787) Dreamliner. It takes 10 years before you can engineer that and I don’t want to fly in a Dreamliner that only took six months. I really don’t. Give me the old prop plane.”

The lawmakers’ plans come about six years after Walker’s office was first notified of unsafe conditions and potential abuse at the prison and a number of unsuccessful proposals for changes to the juvenile corrections system from Democrats since 2015, when state and federal investigators raided the prison amid allegations of abuse.

The Associated Press and State Journal reporter Mark Sommerhauser contributed to this report.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.