It's about time on Lincoln Hills

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Juvenile prisons should help steer young offenders straight, not make them worse.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER'S administration announced last week, after years of trouble and investigations, that it intends to shut down the controversial Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake youth prisons and recalibrate how Wisconsin does juvenile justice. Lincoln Hills houses boys; Copper Lake houses girls.

The plan is to convert Lincoln Hills into a medium-security adult prison, while the state transitions youth offenders to at least five regional juvenile lock-ups to be located around Wisconsin.

At the moment, this is little more than a press release. There are no meaningful details, including answering the critical question of where the regional juvenile prisons would be placed. Nevertheless, in theory, this is finally a meaningful state reaction to the troubled record at Lincoln Hills.

PROBLEMS STARTED EARLY - and some might say predictably - when the state in 2011 closed other youth facilities closer to where most inmates came from, and shifted juvenile prisoners north to the rural Irma, Wisconsin site. The decision was made to save state taxpayers $25 million. Immediately, juvenile offenders were isolated from their families, home areas and familiar people and surroundings.

Tensions soon became apparent, and the facility has been plagued from the start by reports of inmate incidents and correctional system retaliations. Allegedly abusive conditions and violence sparked investigations almost from the opening, first by the Wisconsin Department of Justice and, for the past three years, by federal authorities. None of that materially has changed conditions at the prison, with violent confrontations continuing to be reported - arguably, even escalating - in recent months.

CHANGES SHOULD HAVE been considered long ago, for the benefit not only of those housed at the prison but moreover, for society as well.

Here's the key word: Juvenile. The inmates are kids.

Some day, relatively soon, they will be released from custody and return to the streets, probably in the same cities where they lived previously. When that happens those inmates will have learned something from their experiences. What was learned could be good, with the kids having gained maturity, skills and perspective. Or it could be bad, with the kids picking up more anger and resentment that will play out in street crime.

Thus, society has a big stake in a juvenile corrections system that works more positively. Let's hope the reforms being proposed get that done.

A FEW OTHER THINGS are worth noting. First, these problems at Lincoln Hills have been obvious since the early days of the Walker administration. The troubled facility has been under investigation for mistreating juvenile offenders for years. Still, Walker never visited the facility. No effort to propose sweeping changes occurred until January 2018.

The announcement, by the way, came just days after a former secretary of the Department of Corrections, Ed Wall, said in interviews that he and the department tried over and over to get the governor's office and the attorney general's office to take the problems seriously. Wall said they just weren't interested and wanted the issue to go away.

So what's different about 2018? First of all, it's an election year and both Walker and Attorney General Brad Schimel face voters in November. Likewise, it's probably not a coincidence the announced reforms would not take place until 2019 or later, all the better to ease political pressures before Election Day approaches.

Bottom line, though, better late than never. The purpose of juvenile justice should be to give kids a second (or third, maybe more) chance to get their lives together before adulthood on the streets of our towns and cities. Closing the book on Lincoln Hills is an overdue first step.

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