By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s troubled youth prison would close by mid-2020 and its inmates would move into new or retrofitted prison that could be built around the state, under a bipartisan bill released on Tuesday.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and GOP Rep. Michael Schraa, chairman of the Assembly corrections committee, introduced the bill at a news conference flanked by lawmakers from both parties.
“Wisconsin is about to dramatically transform the way juveniles are handled in this state,” Schraa said.
Legislators have been grappling for years over what to do with the prison outside Irma. Federal investigators have been probing allegations of guard-on-inmate abuse at the prison for three years. The prison has also been the subject of more than one federal lawsuit, one of which resulted in a court order calling on guards to curtail the use of solitary confinement, shackles and pepper spray.
Guards contend the order has emboldened inmates to misbehave. The prison currently houses about 150 males and about 20 females.
Gov. Scott Walker released an $80 million plan last month calling for moving male inmates into five new, smaller regional prisons, moving female inmates into a mental-health center in Madison and turning the current juvenile center into an adult prison.
Under the Assembly bill, the prison would be closed by July 1, 2020. Offenders sentenced for serious crimes — such as homicide, sexual assault or armed robbery — would be housed in a new prison or existing state prisons. The bill doesn’t designate how many would be needed and instead establishes a study committee to make recommendations to the Department of Corrections by Nov. 1 of this year.
Less serious offenders would go to county prisons. Every county board would have to make sure it has enough space to take in the juveniles. Counties would be allowed to contract with other counties to house juveniles or develop plans for joint centers; not every county would be required to set up its own.
The state Department of Children and Families would be required by the end of 2018 to establish emergency rules governing services and programming for juveniles in county prisons.
The proposal would establish a state grant program to pay for 95 percent of counties’ costs for retrofitting or building prisons. Grant applications would be due to a new committee by the end of March 2019. That committee would make final recommendations to the Legislature’s finance committee on who deserves money by mid-2019.
Vos said the Assembly wanted to come up with something less expensive than Walker’s $80 million plan to look at whether existing centers could house juvenile inmates, noting the grant committee would favor proposals that use existing buildings.
The Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Juvenile Law Center brought the lawsuit that generated the order to curtail the use of solitary confinement, shackles and pepper spray at the existing prison. The groups issued a news release on Tuesday saying closing the prison would be the right steep. But the chapter said it was concerned that similar abuse could occur in the new prisons and urged lawmakers to keep them small.
“The goal here shouldn’t be to incarcerate more youth, but rather to move youth out of large facilities where they are at risk of serious harm, and either back to their own homes or into the most family-like setting possible,” Juvenile Law Center Associate Director Jessica Feierman said in the release.
The bill’s fate is uncertain, even with Vos’s support. The legislative session is expected to end by mid-March at the latest, leaving little time for passing such a wide-ranging bill.
Schraa’s committee has scheduled a public hearing on the bill for Thursday. The panel is expected to vote on the proposal later that day. Approval would clear the way for a floor vote before the full Assembly.
But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, also a Republican, expressed little confidence about the proposal’s chances Tuesday, saying that passing it would be a “big lift” before session ends.
“I don’t want to move too quickly,” he said.
Walker has taken criticism for not moving fast enough to respond to complaints about the youth prison. Asked what the governor thinks of the Assembly bill, his spokeswoman responded with an email saying that “we are willing to continue working with the Legislature to reform our juvenile justice system.”
She didn’t immediately reply to a follow-up email asking her directly if Walker supports the bill.