Wisconsin Assembly to back borrowing $350M for new prison
By SCOTT BAUER and TODD RICHMOND
Feb. 21, 2018
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Assembly plans to approve the hiring of additional prosecutors and borrowing $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 passed several anti-crime bills Wednesday as the chamber 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 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."
Paying to build a new prison would be 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 facility. The Assembly unanimously approved that Wednesday, sending it to the Senate.
The $350 million in borrowed funding for a new adult prison will be offered as an amendment to a $57 million bill up for a Thursday vote. 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 address 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 address a shortfall that has existed for years and that law enforcement officials have begged the Legislature to solve, to no avail. District attorneys and others have said staffing levels have not kept pace with the 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, mostly rural, as identified in a 2014 study. That study, by the Legislative Audit Bureau, determined that 140 more prosecutors were needed statewide.
No counties would get more than two additional prosecutors and only those that were identified as being 79 percent staffed or lower were considered. Many of the positions would go to counties to turn part-time positions into full-time.
The nearly $4 million cost would be pushed off to the next budget, with the hiring to take place after July 2019, thereby delaying the need for the Legislature to immediately come up with the funding.
It would also have to pass the Senate, where support was unclear.
Other crime bills the Assembly passed Wednesday included measures that would impose a mandatory three-year sentence for illegally possessing a gun while on probation, parole or extended release; make carjacking a felony and impose a mandatory five-year sentence for repeat offenders convicted of serious crimes; and eliminate a requirement that judges decide at sentencing whether convicts under 25 are eligible to have their records expunged. Offenders instead would have to request expungement a year after they finish their sentence.
The first three bills now go to Walker for his signature. The Assembly tweaked the language in the expungment measure, which means the Senate must concur before that bill can go to the governor.
The Assembly's agenda included another bill that would eliminate the three-year maximum prison sentence for children 14 and over but the body never voted on it. The bill may surface again during Thursday's floor session, aides to Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke said.