Budget committee rejects full youth prison funding, delaying Lincoln Hills closure

Budget committee rejects full youth prison funding, delaying Lincoln Hills closure

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The Legislature’s GOP-led budget committee Wednesday rejected plans to build two state-run facilities for serious juvenile offenders, likely spelling more delays for the closure of Wisconsin’s embattled youth prison.

Voting along party lines Wednesday, the Joint Committee on Finance gave preliminary approval to $102 million in funding for four new county-run centers — which is up from the $80 million allocated in the budget. The gap could be filled by the state Building Commission, a panel headed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that has bonding authority.

But the committee also denied DOC’s request for $73 million for two state-run facilities in Milwaukee and Outagamie counties for more serious offenders.

Proposals by Democratic lawmakers to fund both requests in their entirety were rejected by Republicans.

Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr said the decision makes it “very unlikely” that the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls near Irma will close by the most recent deadline of July 1, 2021.

“There’s no sticker shock here, that should have been anticipated,” Carr said of the department’s funding request. “Our ability to fund these facilities in order to do what’s best for our kids in this state, it has to be a priority. Obviously it does not appear to be a priority for those who made the decision today.”

All told, the Department of Corrections had requested about $111 million for facilities in Brown, Dane, Milwaukee and Racine counties. The committee’s decision reduces Milwaukee County’s request by $8.4 million and funds in full requests by Brown, Dane and Racine counties.

The reduced spending for Milwaukee County eliminates a leased space component included in the original proposal that would have added 24 beds.

Sarah Wynn, fiscal analyst with the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, said nearly 100 of the residents at Lincoln Hills will relocate to the county facilities, but another roughly 60 inmates will remain.

“What that means is those kids will have to stay at Lincoln Hills and what that means is that facility stays open,” said Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee. “The choices that have been made today and going forward mean that Lincoln Hills will not close on the date we want it to close and that those families and those kids deserve.”

Following years of alleged abuse by staff against inmates at the juvenile facility that has resulted in millions of dollars in legal settlements against the state, lawmakers in 2018 voted to close the youth prison by next January and replace it with smaller, regional state- and county-run facilities. Lawmakers already had pushed back the deadline to July 2021, but Evers has warned that further delays are likely if additional funding is not secured.

Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said it could take “a couple budgets” before the state’s juvenile justice system is fully funded.

“We’re not fully funding all parts of these plans,” Born said. “We’re moving forward with a major investment in an important part of this plan for reforming our juvenile system in Wisconsin.”

Republicans cited pushback from local governments and area residents in Milwaukee and Hortonia as main reasons for their decision not to fund state-run facilities for serious juvenile offenders in those communities.

“We have to come back with a better alternative,” said committee co-chairwoman Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

The committee did not discuss the proposed $59 million expansion of the Mendota Mental Health Institute on Madison’s North Side. Funds for the expansion — which is part of the 2018 juvenile justice overhaul plan — were approved in the state budget, but need approval from the committee to be released.

The proposal would roughly quadruple Mendota’s Juvenile Treatment Center’s size, allowing for the treatment of more boys at the site and, for the first time, girls.

“Currently, there is no place in the state that we can send seriously mentally ill female youth to,” Carr said. “The failure to move on that project is also very concerning to our administration.”

Evers has warned that failure to approve the funding would force the Department of Health Services to come up with new plans for a smaller expansion. That would further delay a project that is already behind schedule and was not expected to be completed until some 14 months after Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake is slated to close.

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Assembly Republicans unveiled the plan Friday, which also includes a nearly $45 million cut to personal property taxes paid by businesses and about $100 million toward paying down state debt. The plan does not call for any additional spending on education, which Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called for last week.

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