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Assembly Unanimously Approves Closure Of Lincoln Hills Youth Prison

Proposal Would Implement Reorganization Of State's Juvenile Justice System

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

The state Assembly voted Wednesday to approve sweeping changes to Wisconsin’s juvenile justice system, including the closure of the embattled Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons.

Lawmakers voted unanimously to pass the bill. It has yet to be voted on in the state Senate.

Under the latest version of the bill, Lincoln Hills would close by 2021. Juvenile inmates would be relocated to smaller, county-run institutions across the state and serious juvenile offenders would be moved to other state-run institutions. Under a previous version of the bill, the prison would have closed by July 2020.

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Before the vote, lawmakers touted the proposal as “transformational.”

“Our goal is to try to take every young person and, if possible, turn their life around, so they don’t become a statistic or part of our adult corrections system going forward,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

Republican and Democratic leaders also touted the proposal as a bipartisan effort.

“This can be a model for how we address issues moving forward,” said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.

Hintz did, however, criticize Republicans for not moving quickly enough on the restructuring, which he said Democrats have been pushing for a while.

“The reality is no action would have happened without the work that our (Democratic) members have done proposing legislation, calling for accountability, pushing, steering to do good public policy for the right reason,” Hintz said. “This is the first meaningful corrections reform we’ve had since 2009.”

The measure is one of Gov. Scott Walker’s top legislative priorities for the end of the 2018 session, which is expected to wrap up next month.

The Assembly’s vote comes as the leader of the state Senate, Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has called the proposal a “big lift.”

But Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said Wednesday he’s confident the measure will be approved by a Senate committee.

“A week ago, this was a heavy lift,” Wanggaard said. “There were timelines and there were things in here that weren’t meshing … but I think the fact that the committee sat down during break times, over the weekend … I think that’s what brought us to this version, to this bill.”

“We have to change what we’re doing,” Wanggaard added. “We can’t continue to have the recidivism rate as high as it is.”

The Senate is scheduled to be in session once in March, meaning the Senate committee and full Senate would need to vote on the bill by then.

The bill was introduced, given a public hearing and voted out of committee last week, despite concerns from counties that they were being asked to assume a lot of the risk in the proposal.

The bill’s sponsors said the counties are now supportive of the bill, following some changes.

In a related measure, the Assembly is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposal to borrow $350 million that could be used, in part, to complete the renovation of Lincoln Hills into an adult facility.

The funds could also be used, Vos said, to build a new prison in Wisconsin.

“There’s no doubt that we need a new facility,” Vos said.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 5:17 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.