Lawmakers make last-minute changes to Lincoln Hills shutdown bill

MILWAUKEE — Lawmakers are making several 11th-hour changes to a bill that shuts down Wisconsin’s only youth prison and moves many young inmates to county-run facilities.

State Rep. Michael Schraa, chairman of the Assembly Corrections committee, told FOX6 News that the changes are in response to concerns raised by counties and the state Department of Corrections about the original proposal. The Assembly plans to vote on the bill Wednesday, and Schraa said he’s optimistic it’ll be a unanimous vote.

Republicans control the Legislature, but Democrats have proposed many of the ideas in the bill. It puts counties in control of all but the most serious juvenile offenders, who would remain held at a state-run facility. Gov. Scott Walker, who for years rejected calls to close the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities after an abuse scandal, is now asking lawmakers to set a timeline to shutter them.

Among the changes Schraa said would be in an amendment made public on Tuesday:

  • Lincoln Hills would no longer be forced to close on July 1, 2020. Instead, lawmakers would only make it a goal for the prison to close on that date. The change comes amid concerns that regional facilities in Milwaukee County or elsewhere might not be built in time.
  • The state will completely fund a facility for the girls held at Copper Lake prison, where there are currently 18 female inmates. Some county officials have worried that they’d be required to build a facility for a very small number of girls. Instead, the state will take on that responsibility, though the facility’s location is not determined.
  • The amendment increases funding for counties – like Milwaukee County – that build residential care centers to house young offenders.
  • The amendment gives some flexibility to the state Department of Corrections to refuse to take an inmate from a county. Lawmakers were concerned that DOC would become a “dumping ground” for bad-behaving juveniles that counties didn’t want to manage, Schraa said.

Schraa said he hadn’t heard any concerns from Milwaukee County officials about the plan. Some community groups in Milwaukee criticized the bill because it would leave the DOC in control of some offenders.

“With all these changes, we think we have everybody in a really good spot,” said Schraa, R-Oshkosh.

State Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said he expected support for the proposal from within the Democratic caucus. He said lawmakers have been communicating with the community groups that have been critical of the plan.

Of the 170 boys and girls at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prison, about two-thirds come from Milwaukee County.

If the bill passes the Assembly, it still needs approval in the Senate. Leaders there are more skeptical about the proposal, which is being pushed at lightning speed at the end of the legislative session.