By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A hastily conceived plan to close the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison and reorganize how young offenders are imprisoned in Wisconsin moved ahead on Thursday at a lightning-fast pace in the Legislature.
The bipartisan supporters of the bill, which Republican Gov. Scott Walker is urging them to pass before the session ends next month, acknowledge that many details still need to be worked out but say they are under pressure to act quickly. Walker called last month for the adoption of the bill, three years after federal investigators had begun looking into allegations of abuse of inmates by guards. More than one federal lawsuit has also been filed.
Critics argue that Walker, who is up for re-election in November, only began to take complaints about Lincoln Hills seriously when he saw the youth prison was becoming a political liability. Both Democrats and Republicans worked together, though, on a version of the bill that was heard on Thursday by a joint Senate and Assembly committee.
No one testified in opposition and the Assembly committee voted unanimously to pass the proposal immediately following the hearing. With that highly unusual step, lawmakers showed how eager they are to move forward with the plan.
“It would be convenient to work at a more leisurely pace,” said Rep. Michael Schraa, the bill sponsor. “But it’s amazing what can be accomplished with an intense, short-term effort.”
The bill calls for Lincoln Hills to be closed by mid-2020 and for the most serious male offenders to be moved to state-run prisons. Other will go to county-run centers that are more like residential care centers than standard prisons. The plan would set up a pair of committees that would, over the next year and a half, work out any details that still needed attending to.
Of the 150 boys now housed at Lincoln Hills, 45 have been convicted of serious offenses such as homicide, sexual assault and armed robbery. There are 17 girls, total, housed at the adjacent Copper Lake prison.
Although the bill has bipartisan support, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has cautioned that its proposed changes might be too much for the Legislature to tackle in such a short time. He suggested on Wednesday that the Legislature could enact the plan this year but still leave more work to be done in next year’s session.
The latest proposal contains no guarantee that Lincoln Hills would become an adult prison, as Walker had initially proposed. That decision would be left to a study committee.
Walker’s original plan would have cost $80 million. There is no estimate of how much the bill heard Thursday would cost.
“I think all of us would prefer more time and more details,” Schraa testified. “Please keep in mind that we have a very short window of opportunity.”
The Assembly plans to adjourn for the year next week, but it could still return in mid-March, when the Senate plans to complete its work for the session.