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Juvenile Corrections plan

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers 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. 

Lawmakers writing a sweeping overhaul of the state’s juvenile corrections system are seeking to clear some of the hurdles facing the bill in the waning weeks of the legislative session.

Members of the Assembly Corrections Committee have introduced a bill to close the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma and replace it with new facilities run by counties and the Department of Corrections. But those stakeholders and others expressed concerns last week that the bill may not provide enough money, time or flexibility for the counties and state agencies tasked with oversight.

Committee chairman Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, said he, Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, and other lawmakers worked through the weekend to make changes in response to those concerns ahead of the Assembly’s Wednesday vote on the bill.

Schraa said the latest draft removes a hard deadline of July 1, 2020, to close the youth prison and instead sets that date as a goal. Schraa said that change is intended to ensure juvenile offenders will not need to leave the Irma facility if new facilities are not yet built.

If the deadline is set in statute, “we run the risk of ‘Where are we going with these juveniles?’” Schraa said.

Under the bill, the state Department of Corrections would still oversee the state’s most serious juvenile offenders — 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.”

Currently, both types of offenders are housed at the Irma facility and are under the supervision of the DOC.

Schraa said the revised draft sends more money to county governments to implement the requirements of the bill, allows the DOC to have a say in accepting juvenile offenders from county custody and vice versa, allows county governments to use the new facilities for existing programs, and removes language that requires the Department of Children and Families to craft rules for the new facilities and instead gives that power to the DOC.

The bill also allows the Irma facility to be converted to a minimum-security adult facility and no longer requires the prison be used for substance-abuse treatment only. The latest draft also requires the state to cover costs related to housing female juvenile offenders.

Schraa said he’s optimistic that the changes will garner enough support to see the bill pass both houses, despite doubts cast last week by legislative leaders. The bill’s authors are meeting with county officials, state agencies and Gov. Scott Walker’s office Tuesday to go over the changes, he said.

“I think we have a good product,” he said.

Amy Hasenberg, spokeswoman for Walker, did not directly comment on the bill’s changes but said Walker “is committed to reforming and improving juvenile corrections.”

“We are continuing to work with legislators and leaders in both parties to secure legislative approval on a reform plan,” she said.

Last week, Walker said it was “imperative” for an overhaul to pass this session. Walker earlier this year proposed his own plan to convert the Irma prison to a medium-security adult facility and open smaller youth prisons around the state run by the DOC.

But Youth Justice Milwaukee, a juvenile justice advocacy group opposed to traditional juvenile incarceration, said Friday it would not support a bill that leaves DOC in charge of juvenile offenders.

“(The bill) negligently keeps youth under the authority of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections — despite that department’s proven ineffectiveness and repeated failure to prevent abuse — instead of switching jurisdiction to the Department of Children and Families, which is better equipped to work with impacted communities to develop real and lasting solutions,” Sharlen Moore and Jeffery Roman, co-founders of the group, said in a joint statement.

Lawmakers’ efforts to close the Irma youth prison come amid a three-year state and federal investigation into allegations of inmate abuse and neglect and multiple assaults on staff, and six years after Walker’s office was first notified of potential unsafe conditions.

The prison is the subject of a number of federal lawsuits brought by current and former inmates, including a class-action suit that alleges inmates’ constitutional rights were violated by DOC by the department’s use of mechanical restraints, solitary confinement and pepper spray on inmates.

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