Lawmakers introducing bill to delay closure of Lincoln Hills youth prison

March 29, 2019

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is planning to introduce a bill that would delay the closure of the embattled Lincoln Hills youth prison by six months to accommodate counties that need more time to build replacement facilities.

The bill is intended to provide a fix to a sweeping law passed last year to overhaul the state’s juvenile corrections system after years of documented abuses against both juvenile offenders and staff.

The law currently requires Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, located in northern Wisconsin, to close by Jan. 1, 2021, when the youths would be transferred to new county-run or state-run facilities.

Lawmakers are now seriously reconsidering that timeline after some counties tasked with building the facilities complained it wasn’t sufficient to accommodate a potentially drawn-out construction process.

A new bill circulated for co-sponsors Thursday by Reps. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, David Bown, D-Milwaukee, and Sens. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, and Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, would push the January 2021 deadline for closing Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake and constructing replacement facilities to July 1, 2021. It would also provide several technical changes to ease the transition process and to address how juveniles will move between facilities.

“Why not ensure that it’s done right and it works?” Goyke said. “(It’s) not very sexy, probably not going to go on anybody’s re-election literature, but a bill that is necessary to make sure this new system works.”

The plan diverges from that of Gov. Tony Evers, who in his budget proposed the state indefinitely delay the closure of Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake until the completion of the state- and county-run facilities.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff declined to endorse the bill from Goyke and Schraa, but said the governor remains committed to closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake as soon as possible.

Baldauff blamed Republicans for holding up the governor’s capital budget, which includes funding to create the facilities for the state’s new juvenile justice system.

“There are serious consequences to Republicans’ reckless, politically driven decisions,” Baldauff said in an email. “It’s time to set politics aside and work with the governor to make progress on this important issue, and that has to start with passing the governor’s capital budget.”

In sum, Evers wants to provide an increase of $194 million, or $274 million total, for building and renovating state- and county-run juvenile detention centers.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment.

Thursday’s bill doesn’t address the question of funding increases, which will be debated in the state budget process later this year.

It also doesn’t transfer responsibility for developing facility programming from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Children and Families, as the lawmakers drafting the bill had originally envisioned.

Schraa and Goyke Thursday said they may introduce another bill this session that would do so.