After years of investigations, lawsuits and reports of abuse, the Wisconsin Assembly unanimously passed a bill last week that would shut down Lincoln Hills juvenile correctional facility. Gov. Scott Walker has said he’ll sign it.
But Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald isn’t sure the premise of the bill — housing most juvenile inmates in county facilities to keep them closer to home — will work without sheriff input and support.
“I just am not there,” Fitzgerald said. “Instead of one Lincoln Hills you’re going to have five Lincoln Hills? That doesn't make much sense to me.”
On WKOW-TV’s political talk show “Capital City Sunday,” Fitzgerald talked priorities for the Assembly bills the Senate will sift through on March 20. Fitzgerald said he expects changes and amendments to the bills, and pointed to unanswered questions and “serious concerns” for the Lincoln Hills proposal.
Fitzgerald said there is no question that the juvenile prison, which has been plagued by stories of prisoner abuse, violent incidents and prisoner unrest, should close.
“Everybody wants Lincoln Hills to be closed, and I think if the vote is ‘should we actually get rid of that facility,’ we’d probably have 32 senators in our chamber right now that would vote yes,” Fitzgerald said.
The issue is what to do after it closes, he said.
Under the current proposal, Lincoln Hills would be closed by 2021. Serious offenders would move to new Department of Corrections facilities, and juveniles with lesser offenses would move to county-run and state-supported secure residential care centers.
Fitzgerald said he doesn’t know “where you’re going to place these facilities,” and said county control won’t work if sheriffs aren’t on board. He suggested that the Legislature close Lincoln Hills with a timeline of around 2021, allowing time for Walker to form a “blue ribbon commission” that includes sheriffs.
“The group that has to be brought into the fold is the sheriffs. The sheriffs in all 72 counties are the ones that administer those jails,” he said. “You’ve got to bring those that are experts, you can’t have four or five legislators sit in a room, and design this system.”
He talked to a sheriff in his district who had “serious concerns about this juvenile population and how they would be folded in at the county level,” he said.
But Fitzgerald also didn’t rule out multiple, smaller facilities, but said they would only make sense “if you’ve got buy-in from the sheriffs throughout the state.”
Fitzgerald said juveniles should not be placed under the DOC, but under human services. He was also concerned that “lawsuits would fly” challenging the new system.
In the segment, Fitzgerald also said a fix for Wisconsin’s roads would likely be open road tolling “at some point in the future.” He called the one-time sales tax holiday recently passed by the Assembly “gimmicky,” and wasn’t sure how much Senate support there is for the $100 child tax credit, also passed by the Assembly. He thinks “the votes were there” for the tax credit a few weeks ago, but worries that the momentum for the bill slowed down in the Assembly.