MADISON — As Assembly lawmakers unveiled a sweeping plan to close the state’s troubled youth prison and open new facilities around the state for juvenile offenders, Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave said the county is preparing a proposal to present to the state in hopes of being selected as one of the counties that will house one of these facilities.
“We know we have to come up with a plan by the end of the year and we believe we will,” Delagrave said. “And from there we’ll work with our partners in the state (Legislature) to put that (plan) into fruition, so we can have what we feel is a state-of-the-art, high level facility for our kids.”
If legislation is passed by the state and Racine County is chosen, Delagrave said he would work with the County Board to use the current Racine County Juvenile Detention center, located in the Kornwolf county building on Taylor Avenue, as a place to expand mental health services. That plan is contingent on County Board approval.
“We feel like it’s a chance to have an integrated, state-of-the-art facility that not only provides a safe environment for kids but also we can integrate our services as well,” Delagrave said. “It would be an opportunity to elevate, at a serious level, some of the services we provide.”
With the eventual closing of Lincoln Hills, it is possible some of those housed there — including two Racine County juveniles — could be transferred to Racine County. However, Delagrave said it is “premature” to know if some will actually be transferred to Racine.
The detention center has a capacity of about 115 and currently houses about 50 juveniles from Racine and other counties.
“We certainly have kids from other counties who don’t have detention centers of their own,” Delagrave said. “We provide a high level service at a cost to those counties.”
‘Big lift’ this session
While Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, held a press conference Tuesday releasing the plan, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told reporters he agreed with the plan’s goals but is worried changes are being implemented too quickly.
“That’s a big lift before the end of session,” Fitzgerald told the Associated Press.
But Vos and other lawmakers who helped draft the Assembly plan say they want to see it passed this session to quickly address serious abuse allegations and staff assaults at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma, and may vote on it as early as next week.
The plan, written by Democrats and Republicans in the state Assembly and Senate, would close the state’s troubled youth prison by 2020 and put county governments in charge of new facilities around the state, which mirrors a trend nationwide to shutter large youth prisons in favor of smaller, regional facilities.
Under the proposal, the state Department of Corrections would still oversee the state’s most serious juvenile offenders — or youth who commit crimes such as armed robbery, sexual assault and homicide — in new facilities. Those who commit less-serious offenses would be under the supervision of their local county government in secure “residential care centers.”
Lincoln Hills’ troubling history
The proposed changes come after years of allegations and lawsuits arguing the staff at the Irma facility have used pepper spray, mechanical restraints and solitary confinement excessively and in a manner that has caused permanent harm to the inmates there. At the same time, staff at the prison have been repeatedly assaulted and allege an environment that is wholly unsafe.
Gov. Scott Walker has introduced his own plan to close the Lincoln Hills facility, open six smaller facilities around the state and convert the prison into a medium-security adult facility. Walker initially proposed for the plan to be inserted in the next two-year state budget starting in 2019, but shortened that timeline after calls from Democrats and some Republicans to close the prison quickly.
Though Walker called on lawmakers to quickly act on closing Lincoln Hills, his office did not say this week whether he was backing the Assembly plan.
The lawmakers’ plans come about six years after Walker’s office was first notified of unsafe conditions and potential abuse at the prison, and a number of unsuccessful proposals for changes to the juvenile corrections system from Democrats since 2015, when state and federal investigators raided the prison amid allegations of abuse.