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Walker Now Wants Legislature to Approve Closing Lincoln Hills This Year, GOP Leaders Won't Commit

Gov. Walker wants the legislature to approve a plan for Lincoln Hills to close this year

It appears Gov. Walker’s proposal to close two troubled juvenile prisons in northern Wisconsin is on a fast track. He says he wants the Republican-controlled legislature to approve his plan this year, after saying earlier this month that lawmakers could take it up next year. Legislative leaders plan to meet Wednesday to discuss the feasibility.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is expected to meet with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.  Vos says it’s possible that the Legislature will vote in the next month or two, to move up the timetable for overhauling the state’s juvenile prison system.

Walker’s plan includes closing the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma, turning those facilities into an adult prison and then opening five smaller, regional centers for young offenders. The facilities in northern Wisconsin have come under fire. There are multiple lawsuits alleging inmate abuse at the two prisons. Vos says lawmakers must first subject the plan to a thorough review.

“We are united in supporting Gov. Walker’s goal in saying that we want to have a different method of delivering the reform services that are needed for people under 18 who’ve committed a serious crime. If we’re able to do it by the end of the session than that would be our goal, but I’m also not going to set that as a hard and fast deadline if we don’t have the right plan that’s able to get through both chambers and both caucuses,” Vos says.

Vos says lawmakers may float alternatives to Walker’s plan that could include housing more juveniles at county facilities rather than state-run prisons. He says the counties pay the price of sending juveniles to Lincoln Hills – at about $400 per day -- and cites Racine as one county that was able to adopt its own method.

“Years ago, a place like Racine made a decision to not send most of their adjudicated delinquents to Lincoln Hills. Almost all of them stay at a facility in Racine County. They earn about $175 per day with better outcomes and a lower recidivism rate,” Vos says.

But, one person not impressed with Walker’s call to speed up the process is Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee. “He should call an immediate special session, like he did for Foxconn.”

Taylor wants Walker to focus more on the mental health of the kids. “Move juvenile justice from the Department of Corrections, adult Corrections, to the Department of Health Services so we can deal with the level of trauma and mental health challenges that exist in our system,” Taylor says.

Taylor called Walker’s call for swift action, pandering in an election year. She doesn’t hold out much hope that Republican lawmakers will pass anything this spring, but says at least they can say they tried, and that alone would help Walker’s re-election chances.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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