A sweeping, bipartisan plan to close Wisconsin's juvenile prisons and reorganize its juvenile justice system cleared an Assembly committee Thursday with unanimous support from lawmakers.
The plan was largely affirmed by Democrats and Republicans in the Assembly and Senate during a joint public hearing Thursday. The Senate committee plans to vote on the measure in the coming days before it heads to the floors of both chambers.
"This has been a long time coming," said Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee. She and other lawmakers praised agency officials for collaborating on an effective plan. “What we have slows us down, has us work with experts, gives us a real time line we can work with and more importantly, it gives strength to our people, our counties.”
In part, our counties have been recognized years ago for the work they’ve done in juvenile justice.”
The bill is a parallel plan to one Gov. Scott Walker introduced in January and comes after years of allegations of inmate abuse and unsafe working conditions at Lincoln Hills in Irma. The FBI is currently investigating the facility.
The Legislature's plan would close the Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School by July 2020 and create new detention facilities for juveniles closer to where they live.
Under the plan, each of the state's 72 counties would be required to have a plan for housing their less-serious offenders. They could run their own secured residential care centers, partner with other counties or contract with another county. Each county would have authority over their offenders rather than the state Department of Corrections, though the state would maintain control over how each regional facility is run and licensed.
The state would offer grants to fund 95 percent of the costs of the construction or renovation of facilities to create secured residential care centers. Lawmakers said they expect some counties to make use of existing facilities. Each facility would hold at least 24 youth, and grant applications using existing buildings or sharing resources among counties would be favored.
The Wisconsin Counties Association said its members are concerned about the pace of the bill, saying it might be too fast. It also asked for clarification on how the secure detention facilities that county's are already running will fit into the plan and whether they will qualify for the state's grant funding. Counties need reassurance that they could get help to cover operating costs for the new facilities.
"We need something in this legislation that would encourage counties to take on the risk," said Sarah Diedrick-Kasdorf, a lobbyist for the association. “What were hearing from some of our counties right now, the operating cost risk is too great but if the Legislature is willing to move a bit and provide them with some sort of inventive..then I think they’re more open and willing to take on this responsibility.”
The bill would also create a Juvenile Corrections Study Committee to develop recommendations on locations for the new localized detention facilities and rules for how they will be governed.
The plan would also give family members and social service providers an opportunity to be involved with juvenile inmates, so they are better able to integrate into their communities after their release.
"You’ll have a lot more family involvement, you’ll have mentor programs that people from the community will be involved with and these individuals will be productive members of society,” said Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh.
There is not yet an estimate for how much the plan would cost but Taylor said Thursday it should be less than the $80 million projected for Walker's plan.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Thursday that the juvenile justice bills will be a “heavy lift” but said his chamber will continue to work on them as the legislative session draws to a rapid close.
“The Assembly has a self-imposed adjournment in February. They can come back in March. It is getting tight at the end because of the volume of bills, but I think we’re OK,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s a lot to bite off of at the end.”
If that plan calls for five or six new secure detention facilities to be built, there are a “ lot more people you have to check in with,” he said.
The bill now heads to the Senate and Assembly for full approval, likely in the next week.
Jessie Opoien contributed to this story.