MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Tony Evers said Wednesday that he won't call for building a new adult prison in the Green Bay area, while his pick to lead the state Corrections Department assured lawmakers that the Democrat's administration was moving as quickly as possible to shut down the state's troubled juvenile prison.
Evers is promising to enact changes to the criminal justice system to reduce the prison population by as much as half, while also following through with closing the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison as required under a law approved unanimously by the Legislature last session.
But Evers has angered some lawmakers by saying the schedule to close Lincoln Hills by 2021 is too aggressive and may have to be delayed up to two years. Department of Corrections Secretary-designee Kevin Carr tried to soothe lawmakers' concerns Wednesday, telling the Senate judiciary committee that Evers wants inmates out of the facility as soon as possible.
The facility north of Wausau in Irma has been under investigation for four years amid allegations of prisoner abuse.
Carr told the committee that Evers is committed to closing the prison as soon as possible. But he called for patience, asking lawmakers to be realistic about how long it will take to build new county facilities to replace Lincoln Hills. He stressed that as soon as those facilities are ready the prison will close.
"The governor and I are in total agreement. Whenever there is an acceptable location where we could move the youth from Lincoln Hills, existing or new, that provides the programming, we would do it if we could," Carr said.
Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, chairman of the committee, said lawmakers would not support pushing closure back to 2023.
"I hope you will support us on that in your conversations with the governor," Wanggaard said.
Evers is also under mounting pressure to come up with a solution for Wisconsin's overcrowded adult prisons. As of last week, 23,636 inmates were in a system that was designed to hold 17,867. That is 32 percent over capacity.
Lawmakers, economic development officials and other leaders in the Green Bay area have been pushing for closing the century-old Green Bay Correctional Institution in Allouez and replacing it with a new prison as part of a larger redevelopment project.
But Evers told reporters that his budget to be released next week will not have money for a new prison in Green Bay.
"It's something we have to weigh but it will not be part of the budget," he said.
Two Republican lawmakers from Green Bay, Sen. Rob Cowles and Rep. David Steffen, urged Evers to replace the prison. They noted in a statement that the facility held 1,099 inmates on Wednesday, 350 prisoners more than capacity.
"The (prison) is in clear disrepair and the need to replace the facility is obvious," Cowles said.
Carr told the committee that Wisconsin prisons face a 16 percent vacancy rate among guards and correctional sergeants. Starting guards make $16 an hour but they should earn $22, Carr said. Evers' budget will address pay increases, he promised, but he didn't elaborate.
Carr was one of two key Evers Cabinet appointees facing legislators on Wednesday.
Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson told senators that "by every measure the condition" of Wisconsin's transportation system "is declining."
Thompson said Evers' budget will increase funding for roads but didn't specify where it would come from. Evers has said he will call for raising the state's 32.9-cents-per-gallon gas tax by an unspecified amount, while Republican leaders have said they favor implementing toll roads.
Thompson said the budget will prioritize fixing current roads and infrastructure before tackling new projects.
Republicans have been leery of Thompson's background as a lobbyist for the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, which has advocated for raising taxes and fees to rebuild Wisconsin roads. Senate Republicans have resisted the idea of raising taxes or fees for road work, favoring more borrowing instead.
Evers, when asked Wednesday about Thompson's chances of confirmation, said he expected him to win approval.