MADISON -- After years of disagreement over what to do, the Wisconsin Assembly voted 95-0 to shut down Wisconsin's only youth prison by 2021 and move young offenders to a mix of other facilities.
The plan, which calls for the state Department of Corrections to house the most serious offenders and counties to control the rest at residential care centers, could cost $80 million. Assembly Republicans are also advancing other law-and-order proposals that include: approving $350 million to build a new adult prison, $4 million to hire new prosecutors, and strengthening penalties on carjackers and other violent criminals.
Most of the plans, including the one shutting down the Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake youth prisons northwest of Wausau, face an uncertain future in the Senate. But the youth prison plan passed with support from Republicans and Democrats in the Assembly, with some lawmakers citing a recent bipartisan tour of Lincoln Hills as the tipping point after an abuse scandal.
"That could've been me behind those razor-wire fences," said state Rep. Michael Schraa, chairman of the Assembly Corrections committee, who described in an emotional Assembly floor speech how the issue reminded him of his own difficult childhood.
Lawmakers made a serious of changes to the youth prison bill to win the support of county officials. They pushed back the Lincoln Hills closure date by six months, to Jan. 1, 2021. They also included more money for counties that build residential care centers.
Milwaukee County is certain to be one of the counties that builds a facility, though county officials have not said where it would be.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on Wednesday did not commit to taking up the bill in his chamber when senators return in March. Fitzgerald has raised concerns about the speed of the legislation at the end of the legislative session. Gov. Scott Walker said he's gotten involved in the discussions and was confident the Senate would pass the bill next month.
Supporters said the changes they've made dramatically improved the legislation.
"I would say a week ago, this was a heavy lift," said state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, as he discussed the amendments. "We have to change what we’re doing. We can’t just continue to house juveniles and have the recidivism rate as high as it is."
After approving the $80 million plan to move youth inmates away from Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake, the Assembly also approved plans to put more people in prisons by strengthening penalties on carjacking and other violent crimes.
"Everybody agrees we should give people a second break and we should help them as much as possible," said State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin. "But when you're arresting one individual in a 12 month period 37 times, there's a problem there."
Assembly leaders also announced a plan to approve $350 million to build a new adult prison. The money could also be used to renovate Lincoln Hills into an adult prison, Speaker Robin Vos said.
"There’s no doubt that we know we need an additional facility," Vos said.
State Rep. John Nygren, the Assembly co-chair of the Legislature's budget-writing committee, announced a deal to spend $4 million on new prosecutors across the state to help with case backlogs. That will be added to a bill expanding the state Department of Corrections' ability to revoke parole on offenders who are charged with new crimes.
The Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office will get no assistance under the plan because lawmakers determined it has enough staff, Nygren said.
Democrats questioned the cost of the law-and-order approach.
"I feel like they've spent more money than exists in the fund balance," said Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.