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Lawmakers forge ahead with juvenile prison plan; hearing and vote on same day

MADISON — A hastily-conceived plan to close the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison and reorganize how young offenders are imprisoned in Wisconsin was moving ahead Thursday, Feb. 15 at a lightning-fast pace in the Wisconsin Legislature, with a highly-unusual hearing and vote on the same day.

The bipartisan backers of the bill that Republican Gov. Scott Walker is urging them to pass before the session ends next month admit that many details still need to be worked out, but the pressure is on to act quickly. Walker called for passage of the bill last month, three years after federal investigators began looking into allegations of abuse of inmates by guards. Multiple federal lawsuits have also been filed.

"This initiative wouldn't be in front of us if many of us weren't willing to work across the aisles and set our differences aside," said Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc).

Critics argue that Walker, who is up for re-election in November, only focused on the problems at Lincoln Hills when he saw it as a political liability. But both Democrats and Republicans worked together on the bill heard Thursday at a joint Senate and Assembly committee hearing. The Assembly committee planned to vote on the bill immediately following the hearing, a highly-unusual move that speaks to the urgency of the issue. The draft of the measure was handed out just minutes before testimony began, and just two days after the latest plan was announced.

"It would be convenient to work at a more leisurely pace," Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh) -- the bill sponsor testified. "But it's amazing what can be accomplished with an intense, short-term effort."

Lincoln Hills

The bill calls for the closing of Lincoln Hills by mid-2020, with the most serious male offenders being moved to state-run prisons and the others being sent to county-run facilities that are more like residential care centers than traditional prisons. It would create two committees that over the next year and a half would work out details that aren't addressed.

Of the 150 boys currently housed at Lincoln Hills, 45 have been convicted of the most serious offenses such as homicide, sexual assault and armed robbery. There are 17 girls, total, housed at the adjacent Copper Lake prison.

While the bill has bipartisan support, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has cautioned that it may be too much for the Legislature to tackle in such a short time. He suggested Wednesday that the Legislature may start the process of enacting the plan this year, but leave more work to be done in next year's session.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald

"Something that might be better thought through, especially when you're gonna build somewhere between five and six new facilities and that's a lot to bite off here at the end," said Fitzgerald.

Under the latest proposal, there's no guarantee that Lincoln Hills would become an adult prison as Walker initially proposed. That determination would be up to a study committee.

Walker's original plan would have cost $80 million. There is no estimate of how much the bill heard Thursday would cost.

Gov. Scott Walker

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos

"I think all of us would prefer more time and more details," Schraa testified. "Please keep in mind that we have a very short window of opportunity."

The Assembly plans to adjourn for the year next week, but it could return in mid-March when the Senate is slated to complete its work for the session.