By Todd Richmond and Scott Bauer
The state assembly passed a sweeping bipartisan overhaul of Wisconsin’s juvenile justice system Wednesday, approving a bill that would close the troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison by 2021 and authorize $80 million in borrowing for new state and county youth facilities.
Gov. Scott Walker supports the measure but it’s unclear whether it can clear the Senate. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has refused to commit to the measure, saying passing it would be a “heavy lift.” Time is running out: The Assembly is expected to wrap up its work for the year on Thursday and the Senate is expected to convene only once more next month before senators head home to campaign.
Assembly members seemed unfazed by Fitzgerald’s reluctance and passed the bill unanimously. Lawmakers from both sides praised each other for crafting legislation that they believe would transform juvenile justice.
“My favorite part of this bill is it’s for the forgotten underdogs of our communities,” said Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke, one of the plan’s chief architects. “That’s why I ran for office five years ago … the ability for government to act on behalf of the least among us is really powerful.”
The bill’s chief Republican sponsor, Rep. Michael Schraa, choked up several times as he spoke about how he might have ended up in prison as a teenager if people hadn’t believed in him. He didn’t elaborate on his troubles beyond saying his stepfather was “mean and nasty.” He then held up his fist, saying he was holding an imaginary weightlifting belt to help Fitzgerald with his heavy lifting on the bill. Lawmakers from both parties gave him a standing ovation.