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Assembly to back borrowing $350M for new prison

By SCOTT BAUER and TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Assembly plans to approve the hiring of additional prosecutors and the borrowing of $350 million to build a new adult prison to help ease overcrowding as part of a flurry of anti-crime bills scheduled for votes this week.

The Assembly is taking up several anti-crime bills as it pushes to complete its work for the session by Thursday. The anti-crime proposals, always popular with Republicans, would give them pro-law enforcement talking points as they head into the fall election.

Speaker Robin Vos said on Wednesday that the borrowing for a new 2,000-bed prison could begin “almost immediately” but wouldn’t start until after a study group reports back on the state’s prison needs. The current adult prisons were 30 percent over capacity as of last week.

“There is no doubt that we know we need an additional facility,” Vos said. “We’re just speeding up that process because we’re going to end up doing it next session anyway.”

The money needed for a new prison would come in addition to a separate $80 million plan to overhaul the state juvenile justice system and possibly convert the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison into an adult prison. The Assembly unanimously approved that Wednesday, sending it to the Senate.

The $350 million in borrowed money for a new adult prison is to be offered as an amendment to a $57 million bill up for a vote on Thursday. That bill would require the Department of Corrections to recommend revoking probation, parole or extended supervision for anyone under its supervision who is charged with a felony or violent misdemeanor.

Another amendment to that bill would pay $3.9 million to hire nearly 54 additional prosecutors statewide to deal with a shortfall of staff in district attorneys’ offices.

The proposed hiring of additional prosecutors, which would take place in mid-2019, is an attempt to respond to a shortfall that has existed for years and that law enforcement officials have begged the Legislature to do something about, to no avail. District attorneys and others have said staffing levels have not kept pace with their workload, causing backlogs and a rush to complete cases.

“This is an opportunity for us to make a smart, structural change to our system,” said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who is backing the idea along with Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam.

Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke, of Milwaukee, said you can’t just add prosecutors to send more people to prison without also looking at adding public defenders and judges.

“You cannot simply add to one side of the ledger in the criminal justice system,” Goyke said.

Under the plan, the additional prosecutors would go to the 40 highest-need counties, which are mostly rural, as identified in a study from 2014. That study, by the Legislative Audit Bureau, found that 140 more prosecutors are needed throughout the state.

No counties would get more than two more prosecutors and only those that could be identified as being at 79 percent of their needed staffing level or less would be considered. Many of the positions would let counties turn part-time positions into full-time ones.

The nearly $4 million cost would be pushed off to the next budget, and hiring would  take place after July 2019, giving tthe Legislature additional time to come up with the needed money.

The plan would also have to pass the Senate, where support is unclear.

Other crime bills on the Assembly’s agenda to pass Wednesday would:

  •  increase the required mandatory sentence from three-and-a-half years in prison to five years in prison for repeat offenders convicted of serious violent crimes including murder and second-degree homicide.
  •  impose a mandatory three-year sentence for illegally possessing a gun while on probation, parole or extended release.
  • require corrections officials to recommend revoking someone’s parole, probation or extended supervision upon a felony or violent misdemeanor charge.
  • make carjacking a felony and eliminate a requirement that judges must decide whether to make someone eligible to have his or her record expunged at the time of sentencing. Offenders instead could ask for their records to be expunged a year after finishing their sentences.
  • allow for the most serious juvenile offenders to be kept in prison longer than the current three-year maximum.

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