MADISON -- Two Wisconsin sheriffs' groups on Tuesday, Feb. 27 endorsed a bill shutting down Wisconsin's only youth prison, as prospects for the plan suddenly appear brighter.
The Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Association and the Badger State Sheriffs’ Association registered on Wisconsin’s lobbying website in favor of the bill. Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) noted the importance of the decision during an informational hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Wanggaard chairs.
"I can't see anything that would derail this bill," he said afterward.
It's a far cry from late last week, when Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the plan was being rushed through and questioned whether it would pass in his chamber. Fitzgerald has since given conflicting comments about the bill's prospects. It passed the Assembly last week, 95-0.
The measure closes Lincoln Hills by Jan. 1, 2021 and moves young inmates to a mix of state- and county-run facilities. An abuse scandal uncovered in late 2015 led to a prolonged debate over what to do, with Republicans this year joining Democrats in calling for the prison's closure.
During Tuesday's hearing, state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), took notes. She told reporters that she couldn't speak for the entire Senate, but said the plan could pass unanimously.
"The cost is pretty intimidating, but it's something we need to do. We haven't had juvenile justice reform since 1996, and it's way overdue," said Darling.
Wanggaard said time and some changes have warmed senators up to the plan. The changes delay the closing date of Lincoln Hills by six months and would give more money to counties that build residential care centers to house all but the most serious offenders.
"Two weeks ago, I would've said there's no way we're going to get this done," Wanggaard said. He said he didn't expect any more changes before his committee votes in two weeks.
The amendments have won over county officials, with the Wisconsin Counties Association registering in support of the bill. The two sheriffs' groups signed on right before Tuesday's committee hearing.
"We've really engaged with the counties. We've really engaged with both houses, and we've really engaged across party lines," said Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee).
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald raised concerns last week that sheriffs had not been involved in the crafting of the plan. Last week, he said the measure would result in lawsuits and had been put together too quickly. But on Monday, he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that there could be unanimous support to pass the bill in the Senate.
Fitzgerald’s spokesman did not respond to a request for clarity from FOX6 News.
Assembly leaders have said their chamber will not return to Madison for the rest of 2018. That means the Senate would have to pass the exact bill as the Assembly in order to get it to Gov. Scott Walker's desk.
Walker has said he will sign the legislation.