Juvenile offenders in Wisconsin would be removed from the state's embattled youth prison by 2021 under a bill approved unanimously on Wednesday by the state Assembly.
The legislation would send most youth offenders to facilities overseen by counties throughout the state.
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 legislation is the product of discussions that have occurred across party lines and legislative chambers. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the effort was successful because lawmakers were willing to focus on a solution rather than assigning blame or credit.
"We are where we are right now for a reason," said Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee. "I think that we have a chance to really set a new course for the state of Wisconsin in how we get young people back on the right track to be contributing members of our communities."
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 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.
Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, has led the charge for years on juvenile corrections reform, urging lawmakers to develop a model that places youth offenders closer to home.
The legislation is the most effective thing lawmakers can do to reduce juvenile crime, Goyke said, adding that the new system will give young offenders a greater chance to find the stability they need to get back on the right path.
"My favorite part of this bill is it’s for those forgotten underdogs in our community, those kids who come from wrecked families who never had a fair shot in life and get wrapped up in the criminal justice system," Goyke said, remembering a 15-year-old he defended as a young lawyer.
Both Goyke and Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh — the chairman of the Assembly corrections committee — said a trip five lawmakers took to Lincoln Hills cemented the trust needed to start work on the legislation they passed Wednesday.
For Schraa, the visit transformed his perspective.
Going into the facility, Schraa said, he wasn't sure what to expect. He had heard stories of hardened criminals guilty of heinous offenses.
"What I saw … is anger and hurt, but what I saw most evident that day was the trauma that every one of those young men had experienced at some point in their life," Schraa said.
He alluded to his own personal childhood trauma as he said he realized he could have had the same fate as a young man in the prison's segregated unit who'd had an outburst after his parents forgot his birthday.
"But by the grace of God, because a few people believed in me, and knew that I had value, I’m standing here before you speaking today," Schraa said.
Lawmakers praised the legislation's focus on providing trauma-informed care and its incorporation of evidence-based practices that have been successful in other states, like Missouri.
They also lauded the bipartisan process by which it was crafted.
"When we work together, both Democrats and Republicans, when we take the politics out of the equation in this building and we roll up our sleeves, we focus on producing a bill that can change lives in a positive way, those feelings will last a lifetime," Schraa said.
The bill's fate in the state Senate remains unclear. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has said it could be a "heavy lift" to pass a substantial overhaul by the end of the legislative session. A spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Assembly vote.
Walker "was happy to meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers today to discuss juvenile corrections reform," said spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg.
"He is very supportive of the process and the Legislature’s bipartisan commitment to enacting meaningful juvenile corrections reform, which is a part of his Ambitious Agenda for 2018," Hasenberg said.