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, the leader of the state Senate said they might be going too fast.
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."
"Reforms that are fair, effective, and evidence-based have greater chance to provide positive outcomes for youth that are involved in the criminal justice system," Assembly Corrections Committee chairman Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, said Tuesday. "I go back to a tour early in the session with members of the Assembly Corrections Committee up to Lincoln Hills and I sat with Rep. (Evan) Goyke, Rep. (David) Bowen and myself and we sat down with some of the youth there and it became evident that a number of those juveniles were being failed by the system."
Bowen, D-Milwaukee, said the bill will be able to replicate the outcome of a University of Wisconsin System student he met who was once at Lincoln Hills but was able to enroll in college despite his past troubles and crimes.
"He represents the future of us creating more of that great outcome of young people being on the wrong track but getting back on the right track," Bowen said. "We will be able to do this with this bill."
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.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal have also written hundreds of stories since then regarding the conditions at the prison.
"There are a number of men and women in the press that are here today who refused to allow the conditions of incarcerated youth to die as a story in the state of Wisconsin and so to all of you who fought for inches in your columns to report on abuses at Lincoln Hills, I say thank you," Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said. "Because in all honesty, we are, in part, reacting to the call that you helped issue."