Amid Lincoln Hills scandal, lawmakers call for review of, changes to juvenile justice system

MADISON -- With an FBI investigation underway into abuse allegations at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys/Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma, several Wisconsin lawmakers are calling for change to the juvenile justice system.

A review is being requested to look into current state practices within juvenile corrections.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle support the review -- but are offering differing opinions as to what went wrong at Lincoln Hills.

Lincoln Hills School

Ed Wall (Credit: Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections)

Amid the federal investigation into abuse allegations at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake, Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Wall submitted his resignation on Friday, February 5th.

Governor Scott Walker announced Jon Litscher as the replacement -- on the same day news emerged that a judge sent a letter four years ago warning the governor of possible criminal conduct at the facility.

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said the governor never saw the note and that it had been referred to the Corrections Department.

In the wake of the Lincoln Hills scandal, lawmakers in Madison are looking for answers.

Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield)

"Public safety is priority number one," Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) said.

With that in mind, Hutton and other lawmakers are backing an effort to study the current effectiveness of the Wisconsin juvenile corrections system. At its core is Lincoln Hills.

"We know there have been some practical things done there in terms of more cameras installed at the facility, body cameras being used," Hutton said.

But has that been enough?

Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee)

Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee) believes Wisconsin should look into better ways to rehabilitate juvenile offenders.

Legislative documents indicate almost 64 percent of young men re-offend within three years of being released from facilities like Lincoln Hills.

"So many people turn a blind eye to their conditions. Or are not concerned with people who are housed in our correctional facilities," Barnes said.

Barnes says problems at Lincoln Hills and the Department of Corrections in general began with the passage of Act 10.

Lincoln Hills School for Boys

"You`re dealing with employees who are in very tense environments who don`t have an opportunity to collectively bargain," Barnes said.

As a result, Barnes says Lincoln Hills is understaffed -- an opinion not shared by Hutton.

FOX6's Bret Lemoine: "Are there enough employees at Lincoln Hills?"

"Sure! I think at Lincoln Hills we believe there are. We continue to hire new individuals who have left or for capacity issues," Hutton said.

The request for the study will simply gather various stakeholders together to formulate a plan, or at least opinions, for Lincoln Hills going forward.

If approved, meetings could begin as early as this summer.

Below is a timeline including key events relating to the ongoing investigation at Lincoln Hills:

February 2012: Racine County Circuit Court Judge Richard Kreul sends a letter to Gov. Scott Walker and Lincoln Hills School Superintendent Paul Westerhaus, expressing concerns about a botched investigation after one inmate allegedly sexually assaulted and beat another inmate. Kreul described the situation as "sordid" and "inexcusable," adding "I'll be thinking long and hard before sending another youth to that place!"

Late 2014: The state Department of Corrections has initial concerns about abuse at Lincoln Hills. Administrators put a “limited number of individuals” on leave and forward information to the Lincoln County sheriff about a possible investigation.

Late 2014: Lincoln County sheriff forwards investigation to the state Department of Justice, which conducts a yearlong probe.

August 2015: DOC Secretary Ed Wall makes what Gov. Scott Walker later calls a “routine visit” to Lincoln Hills. No changes are made after Wall’s visit.

October 22, 2015: A Lincoln County judge opens a John Doe investigation. The Journal-Sentinel later reports that the probe is focusing on sexual assault, child abuse and intimidation of victims and witnesses.

Nov. 29, 2015: A teenage inmate has his toes amputated after a staffer slams a door into the boy. The incident raises concerns at DOJ.

Dec. 5, 2015: Dozens of agents raid Lincoln Hills. We learn that two administrators – the facility’s superintendent and the head of the state’s juvenile corrections division – have been forced out of their jobs.

Dec. 10, 2015: The Journal-Sentinel reports that the FBI has joined the investigation into documented abuse at Lincoln Hills.

December 2015: Walker’s office reveals that it had first been warned of Lincoln Hills abuse by Milwaukee County officials in late 2014. A handful of lawmakers – representing districts in Milwaukee and Wisconsin’s Northwoods – also received warnings weeks or months earlier.

Jan. 7, 2016: In an interview with FOX6 News, Walker denies that Secretary Ed Wall should be fired, saying there is “no information” that Wall knew of the most serious problems during his August visit. For the first time, Walker says he expects some Lincoln Hills staffers will be criminally prosecuted.

January 2016:  DOC reveals that it has a total of 16 people on administrative leave, “the majority of” which were placed on leave as a result of findings since the start of December. DOC says two youth counselors – Jeffrey Butler and James Johnson – subsequently resigned. DOC blocks access to the names, positions, pay rates, and leave dates of the remaining 14 staffers, citing an ongoing internal investigation.

Jan. 13, 2016: Attorney General Brad Schimel says he never asked DOC to block access to the staffers’ names. However, in response to a Jan. 14 request from FOX6 News, DOC continues to block access. DOC says its investigators have interviewed more than 200 people, which have resulted in new allegations that require further investigation. The FBI and John Doe probes are also ongoing.

Jan. 21, 2016: DOC reveals that three additional staffers resigned from Jan. 18-Jan. 21 after being put on paid leave. They include youth counselors Kaitlyn Knospe and Timothy Johnson and social worker Nicole Daniecki. DOC says three additional staffers have been placed on administrative leave, and the current number on leave is 12 people.

Feb. 5, 2016: Wall sends his resignation letter to Walker, saying it was time for DOC "to turn the page." Walker's office does not make the letter public for another week.

Feb. 11, 2016: In an email to reporters, Walker's office reveals Racine County Judge Kreul's 2012 warning letter. Walker maintains that he never read the letter, and that it was forwarded to DOC for follow up. The next day, he downplays the letter as one of 350,000 constituent contacts his office received in 2012.

Feb. 12, 2016: The FBI takes control of the Lincoln Hills criminal investigation from the state DOJ.

Feb. 12, 2016: Walker appoints Jon Litscher to replace Wall as DOC secretary. Wall has plans to return to his old job as an administrator at DOJ. A Schimel spokeswoman says Wall will be placed on paid leave "to protect the integrity" of the Lincoln Hills probe. Walker says Wall's decision to resign had to do with "restoring credibility" at DOC.