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Republicans and Democrats Alike Unveil New Plan For Lincoln Hills

Wisconsin Department of Corrections

There’s a new proposal for where to house juvenile inmates after the troubled Lincoln Hills prison closes. Earlier this year, Gov. Scott Walker unveiled a plan to shutter Lincoln Hills in northern Wisconsin by 2020. But on Tuesday, a number of Walker’s fellow Republicans – and Democrats – shared their idea to have counties house the less serious offenders and help cover the costs. 

Legislative leaders touted the plan as a cheaper solution to what Walker had proposed.

Republicans and Democrats stood shoulder to shoulder at the State Capitol on Tuesday, and rolled out a plan to close Lincoln Hills by July of 2020. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says serious offenders would move to new or existing state facilities. Counties would house the rest in new or refurbished centers. Vos says counties could apply for state grants to help with construction.

“Our basic idea would be that 95 percent of the cost of constructing or rehabbing any facility that would be county-run, would be paid for by the state and the operating costs, like they are today, would continue to be paid for by the counties, but hopefully at a lower cost," Vos says.

Gov. Walker proposed closing Lincoln Hills and then opening five regional centers – all run by the state. The new proposal calls for county involvement as well. Republican Rep. Michael Schraa of Oshkosh, called the plan, transformative – and cited a similar initiative that’s been tried in New York.

“It keeps youth closer to their families, creating positive connections to their communities while also providing a continuum of services which include supervision, treatment and humane confinement,” Schraa says.

Milwaukee lawmakers seemed pleased with the deal. Democratic state Rep. David Bowen thinks the state could save millions of dollars.

“As you know, Milwaukee has a majority of the young people that are incarcerated at Lincoln Hills and we’re excited that we’ll be able to repurpose dollars and save dollars while saving lives at the same time,” Bowen says.

Federal investigators have spent the past three years probing allegations of guards abusing inmates at Lincoln Hills. Another person on hand was Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee. She says she got much of what she wanted out of the agreement.

“It was crucial for me that Milwaukee County had to have authority to be able to have a facility,” Taylor says.

And, Taylor says she’s pleased that the bill includes another item she had advocated – transferring juvenile corrections to the Department of Children and Families.

It’s uncertain how far the bill will get in the legislature this year. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who was not among the lawmakers backing the proposal, says passing the measure would be a “heavy lift” before the legislative session ends next month. And, the bill still would need Gov. Walker’s approval.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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