By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers wants to indefinitely delay closing the state’s troubled juvenile prison, spend nearly $200 million more on replacement facilities and increase the age for charging juveniles as adults from 17 to 18.
Evers’ on Wednesday released an outline of his juvenile justice plans, which were to be included in the proposed state budget he was expected to release Thursday.
The measures would have to be approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature. While some of Evers’ juvenile justice ideas have had bipartisan support in the past, they’ve also drawn criticism from Republicans and will likely face opposition when proposed as part of the state budget.
“I’ve said all along that criminal justice reform is an area where Republicans and Democrats should be able to work together,” Evers said in a statement. “That starts with our juvenile justice system and making sure that our kids are safe and have a chance to be rehabilitated so they can get back into our communities and be successful.”
Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, who is chairman of the Senate judiciary committee and the lead Senate author on the bill to close Lincoln Hills, had a one-word response Wednesday to Evers’ juvenile justice plans: “No.”
Evers, a Democrat, campaigned on raising the age people could be charged as adults from 17 to 18. Such a change has received some bipartisan support in recent years, but not enough to pass. Among the past concerns was the cost to counties, which pay to house juvenile offenders. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which first reported on the plans, said Evers will propose having the state pick up the annual $5 million cost.
Supporters of the move say young offenders have a better chance to be rehabilitated in the juvenile justice system.
Wisconsin is one of only six states that treat 17-year-olds as adults and will become one of only five when Missouri’s age is raised to 18 in 2021.
Most offenders under age 17 go through the juvenile justice system, but those charged with the most serious crimes, such as homicide, can be treated as adults in Wisconsin and other states.
Republican lawmakers have also voiced opposition to Evers wanting to delay the closure of the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison beyond the current 2021 deadline. Officials in Evers’ administration previously told lawmakers they were looking at delaying the closure for two years.
“This is just absolutely unbelievable,” Wanggaard said in January when the delay was first announced. “All of sudden we’re just going to move this back two years, doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Evers’ proposal calls for replacing Lincoln Hills as soon as replacement facilities are ready. The plan won support from Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke, who has led the charge to close the prison and make other juvenile justice reforms.
“Lincoln Hills will close without question and we must do everything we can to ensure this transition is done correctly,” Goyke said. “Wisconsin’s youth and their families are counting on us.”
The prison in Irma, which is north of Wausau, has been under federal investigation for four years amid allegations of abuse by guards against inmates. It’s also been the subject of multiple lawsuits, including one that resulted in a federal judge ordering sweeping reductions in the use of pepper spray, solitary confinement and shackles on juveniles.
The Legislature last year unanimously approved a bill shuttering the troubled prison by 2021 and replacing it with smaller state- and county-run facilities. The law allowed for up to $80 million in borrowing to pay for that, but Evers is going to propose putting another $194 million toward the new facilities. That would include $59 million to expand the existing Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison.
As of last week, there were 133 inmates at Lincoln Hills and 14 at the adjacent Copper Lake juvenile prison for girls. The Mendota treatment center had 23 juveniles.