MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican legislative leaders were noncommittal Tuesday to Gov. Scott Walker’s call for them to act quickly on his overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice plan that would take all juveniles out of the troubled Lincoln Hills prison.
Walker unveiled the $80 million plan two weeks ago, with the intention of the Legislature taking it up in 2019. But amid criticism from Democrats that Walker had already waited too long to address problems at Lincoln Hills, the Republican governor on Tuesday called for the Legislature to pass his plan this year.
Not so fast, leaders of the state Senate and Assembly said.
“I’m not going to set that as a hard and fast deadline,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said when asked if he thought the governor’s plan would win approval before lawmakers adjourn, likely in early March.
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Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald is supportive of Walker’s concept, his spokesman Dan Romportl said. But Fitzgerald also wants to meet with Senate Republicans to measure the level of support both for the plan and the newly expedited timeline, Romportl said.
The crux of Walker’s plan calls for removing juveniles from Lincoln Hills and building five new, smaller regional prisons for male inmates. Girls would go to an expanded mental health facility in Madison. Lincoln Hills would then be used to house adult inmates, helping to ease overcrowding in the adult system.
“Both Republicans and Democrats collaborated on this plan and agreed it offers the best way forward,” Walker said in a statement. “Together we can move this through the Legislature to improve juvenile corrections and treatment through transitioning to smaller, more regional corrections facilities and focusing on mental health and trauma-informed care.”
Vos and Fitzgerald planned to discuss the proposal Wednesday.
Assembly Republicans are also working on a bill that would take oversight of the state’s most serious juvenile offenders away from the Department of Corrections and give it to county governments.
Vos said that concerns over how juveniles were treated in the adult system, combined with potentially lower costs to house them at the county level, motivated considering an alternative approach.
“We want to have it be in the most appropriate agency,” he said.
Walker said Tuesday that his administration would issue a bid request by Jan. 22 to select an architecture-engineering firm to develop the concept for the new juvenile justice facilities. The firm would be selected in October.
Democrats and other critics have said Walker is moving too slowly to address problems at Lincoln Hills, which has been the subject of a federal investigation into inmate abuse for three years and is the subject of multiple federal lawsuits alleging wrongdoing.
Workers at the prison have also complained about increasingly dangerous conditions, especially since a federal court order last summer severely curtailing the use of solitary confinement, arm and leg restraints and pepper spray.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said that Democrats had been ignored by Walker and Republicans for years while they raised concerns about Lincoln Hills.
“Their inaction has only made problems worse,” Shilling said. “While Democrats have offered this solution and others since 2011, we have been ignored as the facility has grown more dangerous. … Lives are at stake and Gov. Walker’s political ambitions are his only concern.”
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