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State lawmakers reveal plan to close Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake by July 2020

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Lincoln Hills

MADISON -- Wisconsin's only youth prison would close as soon as 2020 and many of the offenders would move to Milwaukee County under a plan announced Tuesday, Feb. 13 by state lawmakers from both parties.

The group includes four Milwaukee Democrats and the Republican Assembly speaker, meaning the plan will likely pass the Assembly. But its future is unclear from there; Gov. Scott Walker has offered a different plan, and the Senate's top lawmaker doubted whether a juvenile justice bill would pass so soon before the end of the legislative session.

Under the bipartisan proposal, the most serious offenders would go to new state-run facilities and both Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities would close. Counties would oversee the rest of the offenders at local residential care centers built and run mostly with state money.

"This is another good idea of people leaving their ideology or their party at the door," said Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, of the process that led to the legislation.

Lawmakers said Milwaukee County had options, including an expansion of the Vel Phillips Juvenile Justice Center in Wauwatosa or renovation of another facility. Supporters said it would save money for the county, which sends the most inmates to Lincoln Hills.

Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center


"That's about $140,000 per year, per kid (at Lincoln Hills). I'm confident we can do it cheaper than that," said Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee.

Evan Goyke

The prison in Wisconsin's northwoods was the center of an inmate abuse scandal that resulted in two investigations, multiple resignations and an ongoing lawsuit.

Last month, Walker proposed a different plan that would keep all of the youth offenders under the state's control at six smaller, regional facilities. The bipartisan plan unveiled Tuesday would require the state to find at least one new facility for the most violent offenders, but would largely put counties in charge of the other inmates.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not attend a news conference announcing the plan and later told the Associated Press that passing a juvenile justice bill now -- before the end of the legislative session next month -- would be a "big lift."

"If there are other ideas that people have to improve the bill, I'm open to those. I think all of us are," said Vos.

The ACLU of Wisconsin, which has sued the state over the abuse scandal, says there is a risk that the state will replicate the mistreatment in Lincoln Hills at the new county-level facilities. In separate statements, some community groups in Milwaukee had a more positive view of the plan rolled out Tuesday.

Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center

Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Chairman Theo Lipscomb said the proposal amounted to a step in the right direction.

"We need to move quickly on this for the benefit of our kids and community. This appears to be real progress on a crisis that has persisted far too long," Lipscomb said in an email.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele did not respond to emailed messages through his chief of staff.

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