Juvenile corrections overhaul hearing

Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, and Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, testify Thursday before a joint hearing held by the Assembly Corrections Committee and the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. Schraa and Goyke were key authors of a new proposal to close the state's troubled youth prison.

State county officials are warning they may need more money to oversee the incarceration of most juvenile offenders and that they should have more say in an overhaul of the state’s juvenile corrections system being proposed by a bill speeding through the Legislature.

The remarks to lawmakers at a hearing Thursday came just before an Assembly committee voted 9-0 to advance a bill that would shutter the troubled Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lakes School for Girls by 2020 and rely on counties to house most of the juveniles who would otherwise be sent there.

“The legislation that is before the committee today really is asking a lot of county government. We’re asking counties to take on additional responsibility and increased liability with regard to the state’s juvenile corrections system,” Sarah Diedrick-Kasdorf, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Counties Association, told the Assembly Corrections Committee and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. “Counties have expressed great concern about the risk that they are being asked to take.”

The Assembly bill was introduced Tuesday and could be voted on as early as next week. Lawmakers are rushing to complete their work for the year over the next few weeks before preparing for fall elections.

County officials told lawmakers Thursday they might not have enough money right now to hire the architects and other experts to plan new facilities to accommodate more juvenile offenders, and that the bill does not give counties enough say in how they incarcerate juvenile offenders.

“Your counties run these (juvenile corrections) programs,” said Bill Topel, Winnebago County Human Services director. “We want to be at the table. We want to have a real stake in developing the rules that come forward.”

Diedrick-Kasdorf also said county officials aren’t confident they will be able to accommodate all offenders in their area under the current proposal and want lawmakers to include a provision that allows counties to use state facilities if they run out of room for their juvenile offenders without extra costs to them.

Under the bill backed by Republicans and Democrats, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake in Irma could be converted to an adult prison or treatment facility and counties would be required to house juvenile offenders from their areas who haven’t committed serious felonies. The most violent juvenile offenders — those who have committed homicide, armed robbery and sexual assault, for example — and young offenders charged as adults would be under the care of the state Department of Corrections in new facilities. Currently, both types of offenders are housed at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake under DOC supervision.

The proposal calls for county governments to apply for grants from the state to cover 95 percent of construction costs for new facilities. Counties could use state and federal funding for basic care and supervision of juvenile inmates.

Counties would have until July 1, 2020, to ensure they have enough space for their juvenile offenders and have the option to partner with other counties to build new facilities or to contract with another county. If offenders’ behavior presents “a serious problem,” the county may place them in a different facility that offers “more appropriate care or services” without a new court hearing, according to the bill.

Officials from the DOC also asked lawmakers Thursday to ensure the Irma facility would stay open as an adult prison once juvenile inmates are transferred to other facilities.

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The bill says the prison would not be converted into a new prison immediately. DOC would be required to submit to the Legislature’s budget-writing committee a report on the feasibility of converting the youth prison into a substance-abuse treatment facility.

DOC legislative liaison Don Friske also asked lawmakers to modify the bill to ensure that DOC only handle juvenile offenders considered to be serious offenders under state law — which means they have committed one of 14 felonies including armed robbery, homicide or sexual assault, or are juvenile offenders convicted as an adult — rather than leaving open the possibility that the counties could transfer inmates to DOC facilities outside of the court system.

“That would provide (DOC) with a very clean, separate, simple system to operate,” Friske told lawmakers.

Urgency from lawmakers

Despite the concerns, the Assembly committee voted 9-0 to approve the bill. The Senate committee plans to vote on the proposal next week, said chairman Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine.

Assembly Corrections Committee chairman Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, emphasized that the current bill language is an initial framework and said moving quickly does not preclude an effective new model and assured county officials that their concerns would be taken into consideration. Lawmakers may amend the legislation before it’s taken up in the Assembly next week as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has planned.

“The outcomes for the juveniles that are stuck in the criminal system should be at the top (of the list of priorities). We’re looking for new workers in the state, and we want to see the best outcomes,” Schraa said. “When I’m under a deadline, that’s when I work the best, and I think it’s the same for all of us here.”

Gov. Scott Walker has proposed his own plan to close Lincoln Hills and convert the buildings into a medium-security adult prison. Six new facilities around the state would open and be run by the DOC. Walker indicated Wednesday he would not sign a plan that does not include full support from Wisconsin’s 72 counties.

The dueling proposals come six years after Walker’s office was first notified of potential inmate abuse at Lincoln Hills and three years after staff at the prison raised concerns about safety.

Since late 2015, federal investigators have been reviewing such allegations which also have been the subject of federal lawsuits brought by current and former inmates.

Lawmakers did not question DOC officials about their record of housing juvenile inmates at Lincoln Hills.

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