After weeks of uncertainty over its fate in the state Senate, a plan to overhaul Wisconsin's juvenile corrections overhaul saw progress this week.
The legislation picked up support from the Badger State Sheriffs' Association and the Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Association. It is also backed by the Wisconsin Counties Association.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau — who has said repeatedly that it would be a "heavy lift" to pass a major youth corrections overhaul before the end of the legislative session — has said the plan would not be successful without sheriffs' support.
Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, told reporters on Tuesday she believes the bill could pass the Senate with unanimous support. Darling, a co-chair of the Legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee, said she could not speak for every senator, but said the plan "has a lot going for it." She also said she's not sure whether it would need to be amended in order to gain the Senate's approval.
The state Assembly voted unanimously last week to approve the bipartisan plan, which would close the state's embattled youth prison by 2021 and send most youth offenders to facilities overseen by counties.
The measure 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. Gov. Scott Walker called for a plan to close the facility last month.
Under the bill, 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.
The bill requires the DOC to build at least one new prison for serious juvenile offenders at an estimated cost of $25 million. The state would also spend $15 million to add capacity for at least 29 offenders at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison. The construction and expansion would be paid for with general fund borrowing.
The state would also allocate $40 million in grants to help counties cover the costs of building or renovating their own facilities.
Darling said the cost of the proposal is "pretty intimidating," but said the state is "long overdue" to implement major changes to its juvenile justice system.
Her comments came after a Senate committee held an informational hearing on the bill as passed by the Assembly, led by Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine.
Wanggaard and Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, worked closely with members of the Assembly to craft the legislation.
"There are a lot of moving parts and unfamiliar terms in this legislation, and it’s not easily understandable," Wanggaard said, acknowledging the 'heavy lift' labeled attached to it. "But juvenile corrections is not simply a 'lock them up and throw away the key' issue. Their lives and families and our state’s future are at stake."
Wanggaard and Reps. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, and Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said they have been inspired by the way lawmakers have put aside their political differences to find a solution for the state's youth.
"There is much at risk for us to prolong this process, to prolong the reforms that we know are necessary to happen in our youth corrections system. This overhaul is much needed," said Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee.
Walker has said he supports "the process and the Legislature’s bipartisan commitment to enacting meaningful juvenile corrections reform."
The committee will vote on the legislation within the next two weeks, Wanggaard said, so senators can take some time to get comfortable with it.