A bipartisan proposal from Assembly lawmakers would remove inmates from the state's embattled youth prison by 2020 and send most youth offenders to facilities overseen by counties throughout the state.
The most serious juvenile offenders — those who commit crimes such as murder or first-degree sexual assault — would be housed in new facilities overseen by the state Department of Corrections. Those who commit lesser offenses would be placed in secure residential care centers overseen by county governments with support from the state Department of Children and Families.
The proposal comes after years of allegations of inmate abuse and unsafe working conditions at Lincoln Hills, the state's only juvenile corrections facility. The Irma facility is under a federal investigation and the subject of several lawsuits. Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, who heads the Assembly corrections committee, said it was clear to him after touring Lincoln Hills that "a number of these juveniles were being failed by the system."
The legislation includes elements of bills introduced by Democrats including Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, and retains some elements of a plan offered by Gov. Scott Walker last month.
"The basic idea is to say that we need to have a facility that continues to take care of the worst of the worst among juvenile offenders, but our goal has always been the same: to make sure that any juvenile who commits an offense, be it minor or major, has the chance to rehabilitate themself, hopefully become a productive member of society and do it in a way that also protects the public," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
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 center, partner with other counties or contract with another county. Schraa said counties would be encouraged to collaborate.
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, and lawmakers said they expect some counties to make use of existing facilities. Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said that would bring down the cost from Walker's plan, which called for building five new facilities and expanding one.
Each facility would hold at least 24 youth, and grant applications using existing buildings or sharing resources among counties would be favored.
Vos said he expects Walker's plan to expand treatment options at Madison's Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center for male inmates and to build a new facility to house female offenders with mental health needs would remain intact.
The bill would create a study committee charged with recommending where DOC should place new facilities to house serious offenders, with a preference for renovating existing state-owned facilities.
"Our goal should not only focus on positive outcomes for youth, but also provide enhanced public safety while making the best use of tax dollars," Schraa said.
DOC would also be required to assess the feasibility of converting the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities into a corrections facility focused on substance abuse treatment for adults.
Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, said he expects the Assembly corrections committee will hold a public hearing on the bill this week.
Bowen said he thinks pressure from criminal justice reform advocates and media coverage of the issues at Lincoln Hills drove lawmakers together to seek a bipartisan solution.
"We are best when we are together," Taylor said. "What I feel with this is we are moving in that direction."
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposal. Fitzgerald told an Associated Press reporter he supports the concept of the bill but it could be a "big lift" to pass it this session.
"We are willing to continue working with the Legislature to reform our juvenile justice system," said Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said Republicans waited too long to address juvenile corrections and questioned whether the legislation would pass before the end of the session.
Vos disputed Fitzgerald and Hintz's doubts, arguing it's rare to have support from both parties, in both legislative chambers, on such a big proposal.
"Every major proposal is a big lift. That’s the whole point," Vos said. "I guess in my experience if you have the buy-in from all four caucuses it seems like it should make it a lift, but maybe not as big."