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Support building for juvenile-justice bill (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Support is building for a juvenile-justice plan that would close Wisconsin’s troubled Lincoln Hills juvenile prison by 2021 and set up a new hybrid system to house juveniles in state- and county-run facilities.

A key lawmaker said Tuesday that the plan could win unanimous support in the Senate, just as it did last week in the Assembly, if senators are comfortable with the $80 million cost and believe the new system would reduce recidivism and increase safety.

Gov. Scott Walker has urged the Legislature to pass the plan this year before he stands for re-election in November. Lincoln Hills has been the subject of an ongoing federal investigation for three years and numerous lawsuits have been filed alleging inmate abuse by guards.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers worked together with counties, Walker’s administration, law enforcement officials and others on the plan, which awaits action from the Senate. The Assembly passed it 95-0 last week.

“The Senate has to see that this is, No. 1, better than what we’re doing now,” said Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee.

She commented after an informational hearing meant to respond to concerns about the latest version of the bill. Walker has said he’s ready to sign it into law, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has repeatedly said it would be a “heavy lift” to pass it.

Fitzgerald on Friday said he had a “ton of concerns,” including the possibility of lawsuits unraveling the new system. Under the bill, the Lincoln Hills prison in Irma would be closed and possibly converted to an adult prison. The most serious juvenile offenders would be moved into state-run prisons and less-serious offenders would be housed in new facilities run by counties.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who understands what they’re doing,” Fitzgerald said. “It deserves a lot more scrutiny than it’s received.”

Darling stressed that she couldn’t speak for the entire Senate, which Republicans control 18-14, but she liked the plan being put forward even though it would borrow $80 million to pay for expanding and building new prisons.

“The cost is pretty intimidating, but it’s something we need to do,” Darling said.

Helping the bill’s chances, the Wisconsin Counties Association, along with two groups representing Wisconsin sheriffs, voiced its support for the plan on Tuesday. Fitzgerald has repeatedly said he was worried about opposition from sheriffs and counties, which appears to have largely evaporated.

Both he and Darling said senators need to believe they’ve been involved in the process.

The bill would have to pass with no changes from the Senate in order for it to go to Walker without returning to the Assembly for another vote. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has insisted that the Assembly won’t return this session.

Darling wouldn’t promise that the bill would pass the Senate unchanged, but she still remained optimistic.

“I think this has a lot going for it but I can’t commit because I haven’t done all my homework,” she said.

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