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Wisconsin Assembly approves juvenile prison overhaul (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The state Assembly passed a sweeping bipartisan overhaul of Wisconsin’s juvenile-justice system on Wednesday, approving a bill that would close the troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison by 2021 and authorize $80 million in borrowing for new state and county youth prisons.

The proposal has the support of Gov. Walker but its prospects in the Senate remain uncertain. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has refused to commit to the proposal, saying passing it would be a “heavy lift.” Time is running out: The Assembly is expected to wrap up its work for the year on Thursday and the Senate is expected to convene only once more next month before senators head home to campaign.

Assembly members seemed unfazed by Fitzgerald’s reluctance and passed the bill unanimously. Lawmakers from both sides praised each other for drawing up legislation that they believe would transform juvenile justice.

“My favorite part of this bill is it’s for the forgotten underdogs of our communities,” said Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke, one of the plan’s chief architects. “That’s why I ran for office five years ago … the ability for government to act on behalf of the least among us is really powerful.”

The bill’s chief Republican sponsor, Rep. Michael Schraa, choked up several times as he spoke about how he might have ended up in prison as a teenager if people hadn’t believed in him. He didn’t elaborate on his troubles beyond saying his stepfather was “mean and nasty.”

He then held up his fist, saying he was holding an imaginary weightlifting belt to help Fitzgerald with his heavy lifting on the bill. Lawmakers from both parties gave him a standing ovation.

Federal investigators have been probing allegations of guard-on-prisoner abuse at the Lincoln Hills prison outside Irma for three years. The prison has been the subject of several federal lawsuits, one of which has resulted in an order that guards hold down their use of pepper spray, shackles and solitary confinement. That order has encouraged inmates to misbehave, according to guards.

Walker, who is up for re-election this fall, issued his own juvenile-justice plan earlier this year. Lawmakers came up with their own alternative. Their bill, in its original form, would have closed Lincoln Hills by mid-2020, moved the most serious juvenile offenders to state-run prisons and put the rest under counties’ control. Counties and others were hesitant to go along, citing concerns about the plan’s cost, timing and implementation.

Schraa, Goyke and other lawmakers revised the bill. Under their changes, Lincoln Hills would close at the beginning of 2021 and the Department of Corrections could decide whether to turn it into an adult prison as Walker had wanted. The Legislature’s earlier version of the bill would have turned Lincoln Hills in a treatment center for people suffering from substance agbuse. The Assembly was expected to voteon  Thursday on approving $350 million in borrowing to pay for a new adult prison. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced on Wednesday that some of that money could be used to retrofit Lincoln Hills for adults.

The juvenile-justice bill would make $25 million available for the state to open one or more new prisons for the most serious juvenile offenders, including those convicted of homicide, armed robbery and sexual assault. There would be $15 million for the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison to expand to accommodate at least 29 new offenders. Both changes would have to happen by 2021. The state would also make $40 million available in grants for counties to help pay for costs to house the less serious offenders.

Vos, speaking alongside a bipartisan group of lawmakers before debate began, said the latest changes appeased county officials and others who were worried about the cost and timing of the previous proposal. Walker met with lawmakers earlier Wednesday to discuss the latest plan.

“He is very supportive of the process and the Legislature’s bipartisan commitment to enacting meaningful juvenile corrections reform,” said Amy Hasenberg, a spokeswoman for Walker.

Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said nothing would have been done to deal with the juvenile-justice system without pressure from Democrats.

“I’m hopeful, I’m grateful that we’re going to take the first step in creating a process to move forward,” he said.

Regardless, the Senate appears to be the last sticking point. Fitzgerald’s spokesman, Dan Romportl, said Wednesday that even though changes have been made, senators needed more time to review them.

“I cannot predict the level of support it will have,” Romportl said.

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