MADISON - The Legislature's budget committee voted Tuesday to shut down two juvenile reform schools in southeastern Wisconsin and move the inmates across the state to other facilities.
The Republican-controlled panel approved a provision in Gov. Scott Walker's executive budget that calls for closing Ethan Allen School, a boys' reformatory in Wales, and Southern Oaks Girls School in Dover and transfer the inmates to Lincoln Hills School in Irma, in far northern Wisconsin. The moves would save about $46 million over the next two fiscal years.
States across the country have been shuttering juvenile prisons as population levels drop, providing cash-strapped Legislatures with an easy way to save money. Wisconsin corrections officials have been weighing whether to consolidate their juvenile facilities for years; the state's average daily juvenile population has plummeted by 50 percent over the past decade.
The measure passed 12-4 as part of an omnibus motion revising a large chunk of the Department of Corrections' budget. The four Democrats on the committee didn't contest the juvenile provisions.
A commission former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle appointed last year to study consolidating the state's juvenile prisons stopped short of making a formal recommendation, although more members voted to close Ethan Allen than Lincoln Hills. The commission's report said Lincoln Hills offered more expansion capacity but Ethan Allen is closer to heavily populated urban areas and an array of community support programs designed to help inmates rejoin society.
Walker ended the suspense over consolidation in March when he released the budget. The Department of Corrections has been working to close both facilities since late March, moving about 70 boys to Lincoln Hills. The agency plans to move the remaining 66 to Lincoln Hills by mid-June and move the 17 girls at Southern Oaks to the new Lincoln Hills school by the end of the month.
The Corrections Department plans to bump up free visitor bus services to Lincoln Hills in July from once a month to once per week to give parents and relatives in Milwaukee, Madison and the Fox Cities more opportunities to see their children.
The governor's budget would supply about $9 million to expand Lincoln Hills to house the additional boys, create a new girls school at the facility and cover about 36 new positions. About 290 employees at Ethan Allen and Southern Oaks would lose their jobs, although about 100 have agreed to transfer to Lincoln Hills or other positions in the Corrections Department. Another two dozen or so have decided to retire, 10 plan to resign and seven others have transferred to other state agencies.
In March, The Journal Times reported that there were 84.5 employees at Southern Oaks, which is one of the entities located on the Southern Wisconsin Center campus located off Spring Street (Highway C), just northwest of Union Grove.
The committee adopted another budget provision to increase the daily rates counties pay to the state to house their juvenile offenders by $17. County payments to the state have dwindled as the number of offenders has dropped, creating a deficit that stood at nearly $20 million as of April. The increase is meant to begin filling that hole.
The panel also changed Walker's provision to allow offenders to be housed in county facilities for 180 days, up from the current 30 days, and provide drug abuse counseling during their stay. State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, the committee's co-chairman, said the change is designed to save counties the expense of moving children to and from Lincoln Hills for court dates.