Local lawmakers react to Gov. Walker's plans for Lincoln Hills at State of State address

By Kevin Carr, WSAW News

MADISON, Wis. (WSAW) -- During his State of the State address, Governor Scott Walker briefly discussed plans to reform juvenile corrections in Wisconsin.

He's planning to turn Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake schools into a men's medium security prison that focuses on alcohol and other drug addiction treatment. For juveniles, five small, regional facilities would open up across the state and the Mendota Health Institute in Madison would also be expanded to include treatment for girls.

For years, we've reported on the major problems at the youth prison. Now, there's also overcrowding in the adult system to the point where Wisconsin could soon have to consider housing inmates out of state. While Governor Walker didn't give a lot of new information in his speech Wednesday, he did say he's working with lawmakers, on both sides, to push for a major reform of the criminal justice system.

"The Department of Corrections has made many changes over the past few years to improve safety and treatment. These include additional positions, increased compensation, changes to medicine distribution, and more security cameras. The changes I'm talking about today, however, are much larger than that. And they are really about long-term reform of the system," Gov. Walker said.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seem to agree change is needed at the troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison.

"I think we can't continue with the juvenile facility in Lincoln County the way it is now," Republican Senator Jerry Petrowski said.

"I've been concerned about what's been going on with the news, and especially the staff assaults," Democratic Representative Katrina Shankland added.

When the Governor released his plans for Lincoln Hills earlier this month, it called for changes to take place in 2019. Last week, Gov. Walker asked the Legislature to help move the process along more quickly.

"I don't want to wait for another election to come around before acting on an issue so serious," Rep. Shankland explained. "The Governor should make sure we get a public hearing on that bill to address Lincoln HIlls as soon as possible."

"He's looking at changing that to some type of minimum security, that means the prison would continue to operate, that the jobs would be there," Sen. Petrowski said. "We'll try to break up the prison population so we can better handle them."

We don't know what changes, if any, the Legislature will make to Gov, Walker's plans once they take up the measure. But it appears no matter the politics, lawmakers on both sides are eager to help bring change.

"I'm glad that something is finally happening," Rep. Shankland said.

"That can't be the norm for the state of Wisconsin," Sen. Petrowski added.

The proposal will cost an estimated $80 million.