Legislative leaders said Tuesday they back Gov. Scott Walker’s stepped-up timeline for closing the state’s troubled youth prison but wouldn’t commit to making the change this year.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who is working on his own juvenile corrections plan, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said they want to know what will pass their chambers before committing to a deadline.
After initially proposing to close the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma in the next two-year budget, Walker said Tuesday he now wants lawmakers to sign off on the plan this year. The $80 million election-year plan calls for converting the youth prison to a medium-security adult prison and building five smaller juvenile prisons around the state and one new facility at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison for female juvenile offenders.
“Sen. Fitzgerald is supportive of the governor’s concept and his desire to move quickly, but he wants to discuss it with the Senate GOP caucus first to see if it’s feasible to move on the governor’s timeline and determine if there is support (or concerns) with the governor’s plan,” said Dan Romportl, spokesman for Fitzgerald.
The plan being crafted by Vos and other Assembly Republicans would remove serious juvenile offenders from custody of the state Department of Corrections and put them under county government control.
“We are united in supporting Gov. Walker’s goal in saying that we want to have a different method of delivering the reforms and services that are needed for those people under 18 who have committed a serious crime. We also know that there are other options out there besides just having a model that was state-run,” Vos said Tuesday. “If we’re able to do it by the end of the session, that would be our goal, but I’m also not going to set that as a hard and fast deadline if we don’t have the right plan that is able to get through both chambers.”
Vos said he wants to involve counties in the crafting of a new system in order to find an alternative that is “lower cost and possibly with better outcomes.”
Vos and Fitzgerald are scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss proposals from Walker and Vos.
A spokeswoman for Walker did not respond to a request for comment.
Walker originally said he would include funding for the juvenile corrections plan in the 2019-21 state budget, should he be re-elected in November. He accelerated his timetable Tuesday after Democrats and some Republicans questioned why the plan to close the youth prison — which has been plagued for years with allegations of inmate abuse and unsafe working conditions for staff — should wait to be carried out by at least two years.
Legislative Democrats again Tuesday criticized Walker for not moving to close the facility sooner even though problems at the youth prison were reported to Walker’s office as early as 2012. A state investigation into alleged inmate abuse first began in 2014 and was turned over to the FBI in 2015. Since then, no guards have been charged but two former guards were notified in November they could be indicted.
“The governor and Legislative Republicans have had three budgets to address the Lincoln Hills crisis and their inaction has only made problems worse,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse.
Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, called for hearings on a bill introduced by Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, and on a bill from Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, that would accomplish the similar goals as Walker’s plan and the Assembly Republicans’ plan.
“Now that the governor has been convinced that youth corrections reform needs to start now, the committee chairmen — who will decide if these changes happen now or if kids, families, and taxpayers will be forced to wait another (two) years — should schedule hearings on (the bills) today,” Bowen said through a spokesman.
During the Assembly’s Tuesday floor session, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, criticized Walker for waiting until an election year for acknowledging changes were needed for juvenile inmates in the state’s care and asked lawmakers to take up Goyke’s bill in light of Walker’s request to act swiftly. Republicans voted against the idea, killing Hintz’s request.
Vos responded by criticizing Hintz and Democrats for criticizing Walker for doing what they had long called for him to do.