By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Senate Republicans broke with the state Assembly over a plan to overhaul the state’s juvenile-justice system, pursuing a scaled-back proposal on Wednesday that would still close the Lincoln Hills prison by 2021 but would pull back on a proposed $80 million reorganization.
The Senate’s proposal won approval from a powerful committee this week, calling into question whether any sort of overhaul plan will pass this session. For that to happen, the Assembly would now have to vote again to approve the Senate version of the bill. Gov. Scott Walker has called on the Legislature to act this year and has thrown his support behind the Assembly’s proposal.
Various proponents of closing Lincoln Hills were critical of the Senate committee’s decision.
“Blood is on your hands in the Senate,” said Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor, of Milwaukee. “It is not acceptable to do this.”
Defenders of the change said the Assembly’s plan did not have the votes needed to pass the Senate. State Sen. Van Wanggaard, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said he had worked with Walker on the Assembly bill but now backs a new version drawn up in response to concerns raised by Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
The bill approved by Wanggaard’s committee would still close Lincoln Hills by 2021, but it would halt plans to move the most dangerous inmates into prisons run by the state and place less-serious juveniles at county-run prisons. Instead, it would set up a committee to study what to do next. A new plan would be required by February. The Senate bill would spend $15 million to add at least 29 beds for female juveniles to the Mendota mental-health treatment center in Madison.
Taylor, who had worked on the Assembly compromise, said it made no sense to change the bill now after a bipartisan group of lawmakers had reached a deal that was ultimately able to clear the Assembly. She said the Senate was “gutting” the bill.
“I am completely saddened by, disgusted, frustrated by what is going on,” Taylor said. She said the bill could easily die now, especially if the Assembly refuses to meet again to vote on it.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has insisted that the Assembly won’t return this year in regular session, but said on Tuesday he was open to a special session to take up school safety. A spokeswoman for Vos said again on Wednesday that the Assembly had finished its regular session work for the year.
Wanggaard stressed that the Senate plan would allow for the continuation of ongoing efforts to overhaul the state’s juvenile-justice system and would still result in closing Lincoln Hills. The Assembly bill calls for converting Lincoln Hills into an adult prison; the Senate bill, in contrast, would leave its future up in the air.
In calling for a study committee, Wanggaard noted many questions remain unanswered about the cost of opening new juvenile prisons.
“We want to make sure we do this right,” Wanggaard said.
Sen. Fred Risser, a Democrat from Madison, accused Republican senators of turning “a bipartisan bill into a partisan bill.”
The Lincoln Hills prison has been the subject both of a federal investigation for more than three years and of various federal lawsuits alleging the mistreatment of inmates by guards. Walker has called on the Legislature to take action this year, before he stands for re-election in November. His spokeswoman, Amy Hasenberg, did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment on the Senate committee’s action.
The Senate plans to vote on its bill Tuesday, which is the last day it is scheduled to meet in the current legislative session. It’s also expected to take up a proposal to bolster safety in schools and a $100 per-child tax rebate. No details of the school-safety plan have been released. Walker has been talking with lawmakers to reach a deal he has promised to release any day.