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AG: Don't close troubled youth prison without alternative

Lincoln Hills School for Boys (WLUK file image)

MADISON (AP) -- Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel says he would support closing the state's troubled youth prison if corrections officials could find another way to handle serious juvenile offenders but no good alternatives have emerged yet.

Schimel's stance aligns him closer with Democrats who have demanded the Department of Corrections close the prison outside Irma. It also puts him at odds with Gov. Scott Walker, who has expressed confidence in DOC Secretary Jon Litscher's efforts to manage the facility despite a federal lawsuit over guards' tactics and continuing reports of prisoners abusing staff.

"To get sent to juvenile corrections, you have to earn it," Schimel said during a year-end interview with The Associated Press. "It takes either an awful lot of bad behavior or some really shocking behavior. Those kids are going to need to go somewhere for rehabilitation, for punishment. We don't have another alternative right now."

The Republican attorney general said Missouri's approach has merit but he's not sure it would work in Wisconsin. Missouri officials place youth offenders in smaller, regional centers close to their homes. Some facilities don't have fences. Others are located in state parks.

Schimel said most of Wisconsin's juvenile offenders come from Milwaukee and there aren't enough offenders from other parts of the state to justify building regional centers. He said the real solution is to address Milwaukee's children's needs early and keep them out of the criminal justice system.

"Milwaukee has got to start addressing those problems earlier ... and deal with the underlying problem," Schimel said.

Word broke in late 2015 that Schimel's Department of Justice had been investigating widespread allegations of prisoner-on-staff and staff-on-prisoner abuse at the prison outside Irma. The FBI has since taken over the probe and a federal judge last summer ordered guards to dramatically reduce their use of pepper spray, mechanical restraints and solitary confinement.

Problems at the prison have only grown worse; staffers assert the judge's order has emboldened inmates to attack staff. Most recently, an inmate punched a teacher in October and knocked her unconscious. In August, inmates climbed onto the prison's roof and started throwing shingles and pieces of metal at guards. Walker has refused to visit the prison, saying he has faith in Litscher.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson referred a request for comment to DOC spokesman Tristan Cook. He said in an email that the agency has increased training for guards and mental health services for inmates and is working on unspecified "further enhancements."

Jeffrey Roman and Sharlen Moore, co-founders of Youth Justice Milwaukee, a group advocating for alternatives to locking up juveniles, issued a statement Wednesday saying that Schimel is finally admitting that the youth prison is failing and calling for county-run local treatment centers.

"Building a better system is possible," the statement said. "Given the near-daily reports of terrible incidents taking place in youth prisons, these reforms can't happen soon enough."

Although the FBI is leading the investigation, the Justice Department still retains the ability to prosecute any cases it chooses. Schimel told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he had hoped to prosecute one case but he's having "some problems with it." He declined to elaborate to the newspaper beyond saying some youth at the prison have reasons not to talk to law enforcement.

DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said "complications" prevent the agency from moving forward. He declined to comment further, citing protections for crime victims.

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