MADISON, Wis. — Children could stay in the Wisconsin’s troubled youth prison longer and repeat criminals and convicts who get into trouble while on parole would face stiffer penalties under a package of legislation the state Senate passed Tuesday.
The measures are the brainchild of Republican Sen. Leah Vukmir. The Brookfield Republican is locked in a primary with Delafield businessman Kevin Nicholson for the right to challenge U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin next November; the bills would help her paint herself as tough on crime on the campaign trail.
“Our families pay an enormous cost when their loved ones are murdered, assaulted, raped, robbed or carjacked,” Vukmir said in a news release touting the bills’ passage. “Today’s votes will send a strong message to criminals that their incessant unlawful behavior will not be tolerated.”
The first bill in the package addresses the length of inmate stays at the youth prison outside Irma.
Under current law, minors ages 14 or older can be placed in a juvenile correctional facility for up to three years for attempting or committing certain serious crimes, such as homicide and sexual assault. If the juvenile commits a crime punishable by life in prison if committed by an adult, he or she could be imprisoned until age 25. The bill would eliminate the three-year limitation.
The prison has been under investigation for nearly three years amid allegations of physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect. A federal judge this year ordered staff to curb their use of pepper spray and solitary confinement. Staffers insist the ruling has emboldened inmates to act violently.
Senate Democrats said the bill exposes children to problems at the prison for longer periods.
“This bill was written in a different era when people pounded their chest and said we’ll be tough on crime and shut off the rest of their brains,” Sen. Chris Larson, a Milwaukee Democrat, said.
The Republican-controlled Senate ended up passing the bill on a voice vote.
The second bill in the package would eliminate a judge’s ability to choose whether to expunge the record of offenders under 25 if they successfully complete their sentences. Under the bill, defendants would have to ask the judge for expungement a year after they complete their sentences. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure, 30-2.
The third bill would require the Department of Corrections to recommend revoking someone’s parole, probation or extended supervision if he or she is charged with a violent misdemeanor or felony.
Democrats warned Corrections would have to spend millions to re-absorb the returning inmates. Vukmir countered that the bill doesn’t mandate automatic revocation, instead leaving it up to judges. She also argued that the cost estimates are speculative.
The Senate ended up passing the bill 21-12.
The fourth bill would create a mandatory five-year minimum prison sentence for repeat offenders convicted of a wide range of crimes, including felony murder, homicide, kidnapping, arson, carjacking, child abuse and homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle or firearm. That one passed 20-13.
The last bill would create a mandatory three-year minimum sentence for someone who illegally possess a gun while on probation, parole or extended release. It passed 29-4.
The bills now go to the state Assembly. Speaker Robin Vos told reporters Tuesday that he was open to putting people on probation or parole back behind bars if they re-offend but he wants to make sure the state can afford it. He also noted Wisconsin’s prisons are already overcrowded.
Vos’s spokeswoman Kit Beyer said the Assembly was talking with the Council of State Governments about doing an independent study of the costs of making such a change.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.