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Lincoln Hills-01172018094137 plan (copy) (copy)

Member of the state Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve a plan that would close Wisconsin's embattled youth prison by 2021 and send most youth offenders to facilities overseen by counties throughout the state.

The plan, thought to be in jeopardy in the days leading up to the Senate's last day in session, was saved in the final hours before senators came to the floor. It was approved with no debate. 

Because the legislation was amended slightly, it will return to the Assembly, which is expected to approve the changes in an extraordinary session on Thursday. The original version passed the Assembly unanimously last month.

The legislation 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 in January.

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. Under the Senate amendment passed on Tuesday, the Joint Committee on Finance would be required to approve those facilities before they are built. 

The state will 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 will also allocate $40 million in grants to help counties cover the costs of building or renovating their own facilities.

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The legislation also creates a Juvenile Corrections Study Committee to develop recommendations on the best locations for new correctional facilities and services and programming for juvenile offenders. Under the Senate amendment, the Senate majority leader — rather than Senate president — would be charged with appointing three committee members. 

A spokeswoman for Walker thanked the Senate for passing the bill with bipartisan support.

"These aren’t Republican or Democrat issues," said Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg. "These are Wisconsin issues."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.