By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Juvenile-justice experts cautioned Friday that although they see promise in Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to convert the troubled Lincoln Hills youth-detention center into an adult prison, success will depend largely on how well the changes are carried out.
Walker announced on Thursday that he wants to spend $80 million on five new regional juvenile prisons and an expanded mental-health center where female inmates will be housed in Madison. The plan now calls for legislative approval in 2019. Responding to criticism from Democrats, though, the Republican governor has been quick to say he’s open to moving faster.
Lincoln Hills has been under federal investigation for three years amid allegations that guards there were abusing inmates there. Guards have also been assaulted.
The outbreaks of violence have prompted a group of inmates to file a class-action lawsuit. A federal judge responded in July by ordering prison officials to reduce their reliance on solitary confinement, hand and leg restraints and pepper spray.
Walker had steadfastly refused to close the prison amid calls from Democrats to shut it down. As recently as November, he insisted it remained safe for both inmates and guards.
Walker made an about-face on Thursday with his plan to reshape the state’s juvenile-justice system even while trying to combat prison overcrowding by opening new adult cells at Lincoln Hills.
Wisconsin would not be the first state to make use of regional juvenile prisons. Missouri and other states have similar juvenile-justice systems.
The five new prisons Walker is proposing would each never house more than 36 inmates at a time. Lincoln Hills had 149 male inmates earlier this month.
“Nothing in the governor’s plan ensures that Wisconsin will have an effective approach to youth justice,” cautioned Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “Poor implementation and ineffective management can ruin the best of plans.”
Walker said now that the broad outline of his proposal has been released, he wants to take some time before asking the state Legislature for the $80 million needed to carry out the plan. Among the details still needing to be worked out are the exact locations of the five juvenile prisons he’s proposing.
Republican Rep. Joel Kleefisch and Democratic Rep. David Bowen, members of the Assembly’s Corrections Committee, issued a joint statement Friday calling for the Legislature to move faster than Walker had proposed and pass bills enacting his plan this year.
“We believe it could be accelerated so our shared vision for safety and rehabilitation is achieved more urgently,” they said.
Democrats, including several of Walker’s possible challengers for re-election in November, said the governor was moving too slowly, especially since he’s known about the troubles at Lincoln Hills for at least six years. Some also accused Walker of coming forward with a plan now simply because he will be up for election this year.
Butts saw reasons for concern as well.
“To me, the prominence of mental health terms in the press release makes the governor’s plan sound like more a public relations tactic than a comprehensive strategy for building an effective youth justice system,” he said.
Butts said smaller prisons will not, in themselves, remedy everything that’s wrong with the state’s juvenile-justice system, although they will help to make family visits more convenient. One of the biggest complaints about Lincoln Hills has been its remote location in northern Wisconsin, about 215 miles from Milwaukee, where many of the inmates housed there are from.
Milwaukee Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke has been pushing for moving to a regional system similar to what Walker is calling for. Goyke was one of the Democrats who praised Walker’s plan and called for the Republican-controlled Legislature to not wait until 2019 to take action.