Democratic lawmaker pitches plan to address prison overcrowding, Lincoln Hills

A Democratic lawmaker wants to address prison overcrowding by converting Wisconsin's youth prison to an adult treatment facility.

MOLLY BECK, STATE JOURNAL ARCHIVES

To address its overcrowded prison system, Wisconsin should convert the beleaguered Lincoln Hills juvenile prison into a treatment facility for adults, a Democratic lawmaker told an unusual bipartisan gathering Wednesday.

Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, also proposed softening parole revocation for non-criminal rule violations, reinstating earned release for certain prisoners who complete treatment or educational programs, and moving juveniles from Lincoln Hills to six to 10 new smaller facilities around the state — an approach the Wisconsin State Journal recently reported other states such as Missouri have taken.

Lincoln Hills has been under state and federal investigation for three years for alleged abuse of inmates and staff. The state also faces several ongoing abuse lawsuits that could result in millions of dollars in settlements. The facility, designed to hold 550 inmates, now holds about 135 juveniles, which Goyke said is inefficient.

Meanwhile Wisconsin’s adult prison population has grown to more than 23,000 in a system designed to hold 16,000. The state is close to the point where it would have to send prisoners to other states, Goyke said, based on it contracting for 450 out of 500 available county jail beds, up from 50 in 2016.

Though Democratic bills calling for sweeping changes have had little hope of success in the Republican-controlled Legislature in recent years, Goyke’s pitch was unusual because it was presented via PowerPoint to a Capitol hearing room full of both Democratic and Republican legislators and staffers.

Treatment, diversion

Goyke emphasized that national conservative groups, such as Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform, have also supported changes to the prison system geared toward treatment and diversion. He noted his proposals have been adopted by Republican lawmakers in other states such as New Jersey, Michigan and Mississippi and that states such as South Carolina and Texas are closing prisons because of new policies.

“If New Jersey Republicans can figure this out, we can do it in Wisconsin,” Goyke said. “No state has done meaningful criminal justice reform with one party alone. This has been a bipartisan vote everywhere.”

Goyke didn’t have an estimate for how much his three bills would cost or save, but urged Republicans to give them a hearing and have the Department of Corrections provide a fiscal estimate.

DOC spokesman Tristan Cook said the state has “a number of options remaining to safely and securely house inmates” and at this time “additional measures beyond housing inmates on a contract basis at county or local correctional facilities in Wisconsin are not necessary.”

The latest state budget included funding for a long-term facilities planning study and borrowing authority for a new facility to house older inmates, Cook noted.