A plan to close the state’s troubled youth prison backed by Gov. Scott Walker and a bipartisan Assembly teetered on collapse Wednesday as the Senate moved forward with its own version in the waning days of the legislative session.
“Unless a miracle happens, from my understanding, the bill’s going to die,” Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, said of the Assembly version.
Meanwhile Wednesday, a key state senator said that the federal investigation into alleged inmate abuse at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma ended months ago.
Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety chairman Van Wanggaard said Wednesday he was told in December by Federal Bureau of Investigation officials that the bureau had turned over the findings of its three-year probe of allegations of inmate abuse at the prison to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Myra Longfield, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Scott Blader, wouldn’t confirm Wanggaard’s comments but said “the investigation continues.”
Newly released records also show Walker and state Corrections officials in December dove into the details of what it would take and cost to close the youth prison and overhaul the state’s juvenile corrections system.
That plan prompted a bipartisan group of Assembly lawmakers to draft their own plan to close the prison by 2021, convert it to an adult correctional facility and create new, smaller facilities for juvenile offenders around the state — some run by counties and some run by DOC. The Assembly passed the plan 95-0 last month.
But Schraa, a co-author of that Assembly plan, said he believes the entire effort is dead after Wanggaard’s committee voted 3-2 Wednesday to advance a different plan.
The Senate’s plan also closes the prison by 2021 and expands the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center but creates a committee to take more time to come up with a replacement system.
The Assembly has adjourned for the year, which means it won’t take up whatever the Senate passes unless the Assembly comes back. Schraa said in an interview that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told him he won’t require the body to come back unless it’s to take up school safety legislation.
“The Assembly has completed its regular session work,” Vos’ spokeswoman Kit Beyer said in response to questions regarding the Senate’s plans and Schraa’s comments.
End of session looming
The Senate committee vote comes a week after Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R- Juneau, said the Assembly bill to overhaul the juvenile corrections system was “not ready for prime time,” and called the process to draft it “horrendous.”
“The frustrating part — you work on something as hard as we did ... then to have one person basically kill legislation that was going to be transformational — it’s gut wrenching,” Schraa said. “It’s just sad because we had a good plan.”
Fitzgerald said last week that the $80 million Assembly plan did not get enough scrutiny and should go through the Legislature’s finance committee.
Wanggaard, R-Racine, who also helped co-author the Assembly plan, said Wednesday the Senate Republican caucus “does not feel comfortable just pushing a bill through without them having any input in what that bill was.”
“They feel they were left out of the process,” he told reporters.
Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said Wednesday that the Senate committee’s actions effectively killed any effort to close the youth prison, which has been plagued with allegations of inmate abuse and staff assaults.
“I want you to know that blood is on your hands in the Senate,” she said.
But Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Town of Cedarburg, said he wants to see the plan implemented correctly and supported taking more time to draft a new system.
“We may end up with all the same things ... but we’re going to take a longer and closer look at it to determine what truly are the best practices,” he said.
Wanggaard said “it’ll be on the Assembly” if no plan to close the youth prison passes the Legislature by the end of this year’s legislative session.
Walker’s spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg said Walker “remains hopeful the two leaders will reach consensus before the end of session” given the “broad, bipartisan support for juvenile corrections reform.”
Wanggaard said if the Senate and the Assembly can’t do that, Walker could take executive action. Hasenberg did not immediately say whether Walker planned to do that.
New records on prison
Records released by Walker’s office this week to the Wisconsin State Journal under the state’s open records law provide some insight into the timeline state officials took to release a plan to close the long-troubled youth prison.
The records show Walker’s office received a letter from Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele to Walker, Fitzgerald and Vos on June 9 asking them each to support legislation putting juvenile corrections under the Department of Children and Families and to pilot a system of smaller facilities for juveniles in Milwaukee County.
In December, Walker’s office also reviewed a lengthy presentation that included a proposal to adopt a system of regional juvenile facilities championed by Missouri and a series of options to consider, including looking at a proposal made in 2016 by Milwaukee County to house their juvenile offenders nearby.
Concerns about an unsafe environment for staff at Lincoln Hills and allegations of inmate abuse were raised with Walker’s office as early as 2012. In 2015, state and federal investigators began reviewing allegations spanning a number of crimes ranging from child abuse to second-degree sexual assault to misconduct in public office.
Officials at DOC and Walker’s office said Wednesday neither office was notified of a completed FBI probe. Scott Kelly, a spokesman for Wanggaard, said the senator did not talk to DOC or Walker’s office about his conversation with FBI officials but did speak to other Republican senators in recent weeks.
Wanggaard said the bills to close the facility were brought forward after he learned the probe had ended. When asked why lawmakers waited until the last weeks of a legislative session to take up legislation that would close the facility, Wanggaard said the process “could have been started earlier” but other legislative matters pushed it back.
“Everything was pushed back months because of the budget being held up and Foxconn being considered with billions of dollars of investment in the state — all that stuff pushed that process back,” he said.
“I don’t believe nothing will happen,” Wanggaard said of the apparent impasse. “If the Assembly decides they are going to take their ball and go home and not come back and address a major piece of legislation that the Senate decides they have to have some action on, then that’s a problem in the (Assembly).”
Meanwhile, Schraa said he probably wouldn’t support the bill the Senate is taking up.
“This (plan) closes Lincoln Hills with really no game plan,” he said.