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Assembly Committee Unanimously Passes Plan To Close Lincoln Hills

Vote Comes Even As Backers Of Plan Say It's Moving Faster Than They'd Like

Signs showing way to Lincoln Hills and Copper Hills
Gilman Halsted/WPR

A state Assembly panel has passed a bill that would close the troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison, even as county governments raised issues with the plan and the chair of the committee conceded it was moving faster than he’d like.

Despite those concerns, the plan passed on a unanimous vote just a day after Gov. Scott Walker said it was “imperative” lawmakers pass the overhaul of Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system before they adjourn in March. Walker announced his goal to close the youth prison in January.

“I think all of us would prefer more time and more details,” said Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, one of the chairs of the Assembly Committee on Corrections and one of the bill’s sponsors. “But please keep in mind that we have a very short window of opportunity.”

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The plan would close Lincoln Hills by July 2020 and move about 80 of the 150 boys there now to county-run residential care centers Schraa stressed would look different than the institution they’re replacing.

“Certainly they will be secure,” Schraa said. “Youth will not be a danger to public safety. They will not, however, look like jails. The emphasis is on a residential setting that is more like a home.”

Juveniles serving time for “serious” serious offenses — like armed robbery, sexual assault and homicide — would be moved to other state-run institutions.

But despite strong backing from Schraa’s Assembly panel, and the support of both Walker and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, there’s no guarantee the plan will pass in its current form.

Wisconsin Counties Association Lobbyist Sarah Diedrick-Kasdorf said she appreciated the work put into the plan, but she said it was asking a lot of county governments.

“Counties have expressed great concern about the risks that they’re being asked to take,” Diedrick-Kasdorf said.

Diedrick-Kasdorf said the compressed timeline would force counties to start planning for these new county centers almost immediately, including setting aside money in their budgets and hiring architects.

Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has said it will be a “heavy lift” to pass the bill by March given the landmark changes it would usher in.