Lincoln Hills entrance

The entrance to the state's youth prison in Irma is decorated for the holidays in this 2016 file photo. 

When Gov. Scott Walker proposed in his first budget plan to shutter the Ethan Allen School for Boys and the Southern Oaks Girls School — both of which were near Milwaukee — and to move all juvenile offenders to the remote Lincoln Hills School for Boys campus in northern Wisconsin, people who knew about juvenile justice warned it was the wrong move.

Employees at the Ethan Allen and Southern Oaks schools explained that “consolidation” would move young people far from their families and counseled that this would hinder efforts to help get troubled kids back on track. They complained that the plan was ill-conceived and would ultimately prove to be more complicated and costly than maintaining existing facilities.

But the notoriously anti-labor governor showed no interest in the insights of experienced state employees in 2011. He was too busy trying to bust their unions — in a move that weakened the avenues for accountability that labor contracts and union representation maintain.

Nor did Walker pay attention in 2012, when Racine County Circuit Judge Richard Kreul sent a memo that provided details of a horrific incident involving a beating and sexual assault at Lincoln Hills. Kreul wrote directly to the governor, explaining: "I'm sure reading the attached memo will shock you as much as it did me. Almost 50 years in the legal system and I've seen and heard a lot, so (I'm) not naive as to what 'prison' is about. But the indifference in this sordid tale is absolutely inexcusable. I'll be thinking long and hard before sending another youth to that place!"

Walker’s office said the governor never saw the materials that were sent to him by a respected jurist. That’s a startling claim. But it reinforces the concern that Walker was always more interested in cutting corners — and preparing his bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination — than in watching out for the welfare of children who were confined by the state.

Again and again, Walker was provided with — or had easy access to — information about what the Wisconsin  State Journal described as “a dark chapter for the youth prison that has been plagued by allegations of inmate abuse and unsafe working conditions for staff.” That dark chapter saw an internal investigation by the Department of Corrections, an external investigation by the Department of Justice, an FBI investigation, reports of “severe security problems,” reports of injuries to inmates, and an outcry from responsible legislators.

Finally, a federal lawsuit by the ACLU of Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center secured an injunction to limit some of the most abusive practices in the facilities, where the ACLU reported that children “were routinely placed in solitary confinement, put in mechanical restraints, pepper-sprayed, and strip searched.”

“These facilities (Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls) incarcerate approximately 150-200 children as young as 14 years old. Prior to state and federal raids on the facility in December 2015, staff also regularly physically abused youth in the facility, even breaking their arms and legs in some cases,” explained the ACLU last week, in a statement that described “horrific conditions” and persistent concerns.

Walker cannot plead ignorance. For more than five years, information, evidence and pleas for action were directed to the governor.

Yet he did not act appropriately.

He is still not acting appropriately.

Last week, Walker said he wanted to convert the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities into a prison for adult inmates. He indicated that he is interested in building as many as six smaller youth facilities across Wisconsin for the state’s most serious juvenile offenders — including a mental health unit in Madison for girls.

Yet we do not know if any of these changes will take place.

We don’t know because Walker is not responding with a sense of urgency. According to the State Journal, “If Walker wins re-election, he plans to include in the next state budget at least $80 million for the construction of five new juvenile prisons for up to three dozen inmates each. Lawmakers would need to approve the plan.”

While Walker said planning for the move is taking place, the steps that must be taken will not be come until 2019. Or 2020. Or who knows when.

That’s shameful.

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“After years of neglect, and ignoring the many legislative proposals that I introduced to bring relief to juveniles and correctional officers, Governor Walker is just now getting to do his job right in time for another election bid,” said state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee. “As governor, he has failed to visit a single correctional or juvenile facility in his entire tenure. It’s clear where his priorities are, and that this is just another attempt to play politics and get this scandal, recently confirmed by his former Corrections secretary, off his back.”

State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said Walker is “(using) juveniles and state employees as pawns in a campaign gimmick.”

Bipartisan support for change came from two members of the Assembly Corrections Committee. Rep. Joel Kleefish, R-Oconomowoc, and Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, said in a statement Friday that the Legislature should enact Walker's plan this year.

If Walker really recognized the enormity of what has gone awry on his watch, he would call for a special session of the Legislature to deal with the juvenile justice crisis. Lawmakers should take up bills sponsored by Sen. Taylor, Rep. Taylor, state Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, and other engaged legislators who have outlined specific plans to address not just the mess at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake but much of what is wrong with juvenile justice in Wisconsin.

They must not wait. It is immoral to delay any longer, and it is doubly immoral to delay for political purposes. The response to the crisis — which this governor has for so long neglected — should begin immediately.

Correction: This editorial has been corrected to identify the Wisconsin State Journal as the original source of two quotes in this piece.

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