MADISON, Wis. — A bipartisan compromise to close the troubled Lincoln Hills prison as part of a broad overhaul of Wisconsin’s juvenile justice system was in jeopardy Wednesday due to a split among Republicans who control the Senate and the state Assembly.
Authors of the bill that unanimously passed the Assembly said their measure appears dead thanks to Senate changes.
A Republican-controlled Senate committee voted 3-2 along party lines Wednesday to approve a scaled-back proposal that would still close Lincoln Hills by 2021 but does not say what would replace it. Instead, a committee would be created to study the issue and spend $15 million to expand a mental health hospital in Madison.
The $80 million Assembly bill called for the creation of smaller, regional prisons to house juveniles across the state.
Rep. Michael Schraa, a Republican from Oshkosh who co-authored the Assembly bill, called the action by fellow Republicans in the Senate a “death sentence.”
“The Assembly was able to put aside political differences for the good of the troubled youth of the state. We call on the Senate to do the same,” Schraa said in a statement. “Why can’t we just come together to do what’s right for the troubled youth of Wisconsin?
The bill must pass both the Senate and Assembly in identical form to be enacted. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said the Assembly will not return in regular session this year, a position his spokeswoman repeated Wednesday even after the Senate committee vote.
The Senate planned to vote on passing its version of the bill on Tuesday, its last session day.
Gov. Scott Walker has urged lawmakers to pass a juvenile justice overhaul this year. He supported the Assembly version of the bill, and his spokeswoman, Amy Hasenberg, said the governor remained hopeful a deal could be struck because of “broad, bipartisan support for juvenile corrections reform.”
Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke, of Milwaukee, worked on the compromise bill that the Assembly approved. He said that Walker needed to lobby the Senate to approve that version.
“We’re not dead yet,” Goyke said.
Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor, who voted against the bill in the Senate committee, said Republicans were to blame for killing it.
“Blood is on your hands in the Senate,” Taylor said. “It is not acceptable to do this. … I am completely saddened by, disgusted, frustrated by what is going on.”
After the vote, Senate judiciary committee chairman Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said the Federal Bureau of Investigation had told him in December it had completed its probe at the Lincoln Hills prison and turned over its findings to the U.S. attorney for western Wisconsin, Scott Blader.
His office issued a statement saying only that the investigation is ongoing. No one has been formally charged and Wanggaard said he did not believe any current employees at Lincoln Hills may be.
He denied that lawmakers were pursuing the bill in reaction to the yearslong probe into alleged abuse of inmates by guards. Several federal lawsuits have also been filed.
Wanggaard stressed that under the Senate bill, Lincoln Hills would still close by 2021. Creating the study committee would allow for ongoing questions about the costs of creating new facilities to house juveniles, particularly for counties, to be addressed.
“We want to make sure we do this right,” Wanggaard said.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald last week called the process of creating the Assembly bill “horrendous,” saying it was wrong for him not to be a part of the negotiations. He said the plan was “not ready for prime time” and needed more scrutiny.
The $80 million Assembly bill included funding to move the most dangerous inmates into state-run facilities and the rest into county facilities. The Senate bill would spend $15 million to expand the Mendota mental health treatment center in Madison by at least 29 beds to house female juveniles.
The Assembly bill calls for converting it into an adult prison, but the Senate bill would leave its future use undetermined.
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