MADISON, Wis. — A hastily conceived plan to close the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison and reorganize how young offenders are imprisoned in Wisconsin moved ahead Thursday at a lightning-fast pace in the Legislature, with a highly unusual committee 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.
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 that won broad support. No one testified against the measure.
The Assembly committee voted unanimously to pass the proposal 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, and lawmakers said that changes were expected.
The full Assembly is expected to pass the measure next week.
“It would be convenient to work at a more leisurely pace,” bill sponsor Republican Rep. Michael Schraa testified. “But it’s amazing what can be accomplished with an intense, short-term effort.”
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.
State agencies in Walker’s administration that are involved in housing juveniles — including the Corrections Department, the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Health Services — all testified in support. Lobbyists for the Wisconsin Counties Association testified that they still had concerns over the aggressive timeline, how much counties would have to pay to house inmates, and whether counties could have inmates housed by the state if their facilities are at capacity.
Schraa said he was committed to continuing to work on concerns about the bill.
“We’ll get this done,” he said.
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.
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.
“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.
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