By Cara Lombardo
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican legislators have introduced bills that could land more children in Wisconsin’s youth prison for a wider range of crimes and keep them there longer, despite an ongoing FBI investigation into allegations of widespread abuse at the center.
The bills are part of a package of proposals that Sen. Leah Vukmir and Rep. Joe Sanfelippo introduced Tuesday in an effort to reduce violent crime and protect the public from violent repeat offenders. Other measures would increase penalties for carjacking or possessing a firearm while on probation.
Sanfelippo said the bills were coming in response to discussions he had over the course of two years with police officers, judges, district attorneys and Department of Corrections officials about how to combat violent crime, which has increased in Wisconsin in recent years.
The proposals come as the FBI is investigating allegations of physical and sexual abuse and neglect at the state’s youth prison facility in Irma, which includes the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Juvenile Law Center filed a lawsuit last month alleging that guards there overused solitary confinement and pepper spray to control inmates.
Sydni Briggs, a former inmate, filed a lawsuit this week alleging that staff at Copper Lake ignored signs she was suicidal and did nothing to prevent her from trying to hang herself. She suffered brain damage and will need around-the-clock care for the rest of her life.
Her lawyer, Eric Haag, cautioned against sending more youth to the current prison before reforms are made.
“Who in their right mind would think it’s a good idea right now to send more kids to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake given the complete unmitigated disaster that has taken place there?” Haag said.
Juvenile Law Center Director Marsha Levick, whose group advocates for juvenile justice reform, said the proposals “ignore widely accepted research that lengthy incarceration of youth increases recidivism and exacerbates childhood trauma.”
Sanfelippo said the bills target repeat offenders who cycle through the justice system and that the allegations of abuse at the youth prison are a “whole separate issue.”
“I’m concerned with what’s going on up there, however these bills have nothing to do with Lincoln Hills,” Sanfelippo said, noting that it’s possible that the Irma prison will close at some point..
Vukmir said the intent of the proposal was to give judges more discretion over sentencing violent and habitual juvenile offenders. Juveniles would still need to be found a danger to the public to be sent to a correctional center, she said.
A bipartisan bill introduced last week by Republican Rep. Joel Kleefisch and Democratic Sen. LaTonya Johnson would require guards at the youth prison to report any incidents of child abuse or face jail time and fines.
Minority Democrats introduced a dozen bills targeting issues at the prison as the legislative session ended last spring, including measures to outlaw solitary confinement for minors and increase training for guards. But top Republican officials didn’t allow the measures to go anywhere. Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said she’s not comfortable sending more youth to Lincoln Hills until staff shortages and reports of sexual assault and abuse are dealt with.
Sen. Van Wanggaard, the Senate’s Judiciary Committee chair, has said Republicans are waiting for the results of an ongoing FBI investigation.
Under current law, minors ages 14 or older can be placed in a juvenile correctional center for up to three years for attempting or committing certain serious crimes, such as homicide and sexual assault. One measure would expand that list to include any crime that would be a felony if committed by an adult if the juvenile offender is found to be a danger to the public.
Another bill would allow juveniles to be held in prison for more than the current limit of three years.
Wanggaard signed onto some of the bills in the package but is still reviewing those concerning juveniles, his spokesman Scott Kelly said. Kelly said Wanggaard expects to see at least some of the bills in the package prioritized this session.
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