Lawmakers unanimously passed a brand new bill out of an Assembly committee that would close the troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison today.
That facility’s been at the center of abuse allegations from both inmates and staff for years, but now the bill to shut it down is moving through the legislature at a break-neck pace.
The bill is a complete overhaul of the state’s juvenile corrections system. It’s a different plan than Democrats put forward, but it’s got bipartisan support. Critics say it’s long past due.
The bill would close Lincoln Hills by July 2020.
The overhaul of the system’s been in the works for years, as abuse allegations and FBI investigations at the state’s only juvenile detention center have raged on.
Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has finally settled on a plan that they think will work. It involves moving youth inmates to smaller, county-run facilities scattered across the state. Many have criticized Lincoln Hills thanks to its location in the small town of Irma, north of Wausau. That’s hours from Milwaukee or Madison, where many inmates are from.
Republican Rep. Michael Schraa is one of the bill’s authors and chair of the Assembly committee on corrections. He says these new facilities will look pretty different from Lincoln Hills.
“Certainly they will be secure, youth will not be a danger to public safety,” Schraa says. “They will not however look like jails. The emphasis will be on a residential setting that’s more like a home.”
More serious offenders would still be under the care of the state’s department of corrections, but they’d be in new facilities, rather than Lincoln Hills.
But some are concerned about the lighting fast pace with which this bill is moving through the legislature. The bill was formally introduced, had a four hour public hearing and was passed unanimously out of the corrections committee all today.
The Wisconsin Counties Association raised concerns about the pace at the public hearing today. Counties would be expected to house less-serious juvenile convicts under the bill, convicts who the state currently houses. State grants would pay for 95 percent of the new and expanded facilities.
The state Department of Corrections would continue to house more serious juvenile offenders, but they’d be in new, smaller facilities around the state.
Sarah Diedrick-Kasdorf with the Wisconsin Counties Association says there might not always be room at the county level and wants to language in the bill that would allow counties to pass some lower level juvenile offenders onto the state if they run out of space.
They’d have to have a plan in place by July 1, 2020, when Lincoln Hills is set to close.
“Our counties are really concerned that sufficient capacity for juvenile correctional placements may not exist under the bill,” Diedrick-Kasdorf says. “Counties are somewhat hesitant to take this on.”
Schraa says while they would have ideally liked to have more time on the bill, he hopes it passes this session. The bill’s next stop is the full Assembly.