MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s troubled youth prison would close by mid-2020 and its inmates would move into new or retrofitted facilities that could be located around the state under a bipartisan bill released Tuesday.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and GOP Rep. Michael Schraa, chairman of the Assembly corrections committee, introduced the bill at a news conference flanked by lawmakers from both parties.
“Wisconsin is about to dramatically transform the way juveniles are handled in this state,” Schraa said.
Legislators have been grappling for years over what to do with the prison outside Irma. Federal investigators have been probing allegations of guard-on-inmate abuse at the facility for three years. The prison has been the subject of multiple federal lawsuits, one of which resulted in a court order that guards curtail the use of solitary confinement, shackles and pepper spray. Guards contend the order has emboldened inmates to misbehave. The prison currently houses about 150 males and about 20 females.
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Gov. Scott Walker unveiled an $80 million plan last month that calls for moving male inmates into five new, smaller regional facilities, moving female inmates into a Madison mental health facility and transforming the prison into an adult facility.
Under the Assembly bill, the prison would close by July 1, 2020. Offenders sentenced for serious crimes — such as homicide, sexual assault or armed robbery — would be housed in new or existing state facilities. The bill doesn’t designate how many state facilities would be needed, instead creating a study committee to make recommendations to the Department of Corrections by Nov. 1 of this year.
Less serious offenders would go to county facilities. Every county board would have to make sure it has enough space to handle them. Counties would be allowed to contract with other counties to house juveniles or develop plans for joint facilities; not every county would be required to set up its own facility.
The state Department of Children and Families would be required to establish emergency rules governing services and programming for juveniles in county facilities by the end of 2018.
The proposal would create a state grant program to pay for 95 percent of counties’ costs for retrofitting or building facilities. Grant applications would be due to a new committee by the end of March 2019. That committee would make final recommendations to the Legislature’s finance committee on who deserves money by mid-2019.
Vos said the Assembly wanted to come up with something less expensive than Walker’s $80 million plan by focusing on whether existing facilities could house juvenile inmates, noting the grant committee would favor proposals that use existing buildings and joint applications from multiple counties.
The Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Juvenile Law Center brought the lawsuit that generated the order to dial back solitary confinement, shackles and pepper spray at the existing prison. The groups issued a news release Tuesday saying closing the facility is the right move. But the chapter said it was concerned similar abuse could occur in the new facilities and urged lawmakers to keep the facilities small.
“The goal here shouldn’t be to incarcerate more youth, but rather to move youth out of large facilities where they are at risk of serious harm, and either back to their own homes or into the most family-like setting possible,” Juvenile Law Center Associate Director Jessica Feierman said in the release.
The bill’s fate is uncertain, even with Vos’s support. The legislative session is expected to end by mid-March at the latest, leaving little time for passing such a transformative bill.
Schraa’s committee has scheduled a public hearing on the bill for Thursday. The panel is expected to vote on the proposal later that day. Approval would clear the way for a full Assembly floor vote.
But Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald was noncommittal about the proposal’s chances Tuesday, calling passing it a “big lift” before session ends.
“I don’t want to move too quickly,” he said.
Walker has taken criticism for not moving fast enough to address problems at the youth prison. Asked what the governor thinks of the Assembly bill, spokeswoman Amy Hesenberg responded with an email saying that “we are willing to continue working with the Legislature to reform our juvenile justice system.” She didn’t immediately reply to a follow-up email asking her directly if Walker supports the bill.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.
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