Tuesday January 28, 2020

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What Will It Take to Close Lincoln Hills?

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 11 December 2019
in Wisconsin

lincohn-hills-youth-prisonWe must close Lincoln Hills and take steps to reduce recidivism in Wisconsin. If we don’t invest in the rehabilitation of our youth, we will continue to see institutional racism in our corrections system.


IRMA, WI - Within the last decade, Lincoln Hills has reached a state of crisis. New reports emerged this fall, citing the violence taking place at this youth detention facility. This revelation reminds us that nothing yet has happened to resolve the serious issues in Wisconsin’s youth prisons.

Lincoln Hills, located in Irma, opened in 1970 for male youth offenders. While most of us live far from Lincoln Hills, and few people know individuals housed at the facility, we should all be concerned about the future of these young men.

The way Wisconsin handles youth offenders directly affects whether they end up on a lifetime path within our justice system. We should all want a system that provides a safe space and promotes practices to reduce the rate of recidivism once these young men are released.

After high profile incidents, criminal complaints, civil lawsuits and a federal investigation, officials determined Lincoln Hills needed to shut down. During the 2017-18 session, the State Legislature passed Act 185, to restructure the state’s juvenile correctional system. This legislation was an attempt to fix, what appeared to be, a broken system.

Act 185 will convert Lincoln Hills from a youth facility to an adult correctional institution by establishing Type 1 facilities for serious juvenile offenders and establishing Secured Residential Care Centers (SRCCs) around the state.

Officials needed new facilities for the young adults, currently at Lincoln Hills, to reach their goal of closing this facility. Act 185 appropriated $25 million for the construction of Type 1 facilities for serious offenders under the age of 17 who were convicted of class A or B felonies, including homicide, sexual assault or armed robbery.

Act 185 also appropriated $40 million to build multiple SRCCs around the state. The Department of Corrections (DOC) invited counties to apply for a grant from the $40 million budgeted for this project. I was disappointed when the March grant application deadline passed and the only counties interested were Milwaukee, Racine, Dane and Brown.

After having conversations with DOC officials, I learned that counties are reluctant to apply for the grant because it only covers construction, and they fear the constraints placed on their budgets wouldn’t allow them the resources needed to run the facilities. Thus, the goal of having youth facilities closer to families may not be met.

It does make some sense that counties in Southern Wisconsin would jump on the opportunity to bring their youth back home. After all, 60% of the youth currently at Lincoln Hills are from Milwaukee County.

Something is very wrong with Wisconsin incarcerating disproportionate amounts of African Americans compared to our total population. According to Youth Justice Milwaukee, 70% of the youth in Lincoln Hills are African American, despite comprising only 10% of Wisconsin’s total youth population.

This trend in our youth facilities is seen on a larger scale in Wisconsin’s adult correctional system too. Wisconsin incarcerates African-American men at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country. According to the State Bar of Wisconsin, 43% of males incarcerated in our state are African-American. Wisconsin’s total African-American population is only 6.6%, indicating another example of the racial inequalities in the state.

jeff-smithIf we don’t invest in the rehabilitation of our youth, we will continue to see institutional racism in our corrections system. Keeping young offenders close to home is a good first step on the path of reducing recidivism.

The DOC has done everything they can to help counties apply. This year the Legislature passed a bill, signed into law by Governor Evers, to double the amount of funding. We also extended the deadline for closure of Lincoln Hills to allow counties more time to get the SRCCs built and running.

But still nothing is happening. The Republican-led Joint Finance Committee, has refused to meet and vote on the funding. Political games are continuing while time is running out to prevent violence in Wisconsin’s youth prisons. What else will it take?

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Homeless Wisconsinites Left out in the Cold by GOP

Posted by Jon Erpenbach. State Senator 27th District
Jon Erpenbach. State Senator 27th District
State Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Madison) - A former radio personality and legisla
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on Friday, 06 December 2019
in Wisconsin

homelessState Republican “A Hand for the Homeless” package just another stall tactic says Erpenbach.


WEST POINT - In Governor Evers’ budget proposal, he included funding to combat homelessness in Wisconsin. The funding was based on recommendations from an Interagency Council on Homelessness that was created in 2017. The recommendations were drawn from the council’s “A Hand and a Home: Foundations for Success,” an action plan that asked for $3.75 million annually to prevent and decrease homelessness in Wisconsin. Additionally, in February 2019, Republicans introduced a series of eight bills that had the same goals – the “A Hand for the Homeless” package. With both sides of the aisle working on the issue, there was hope that, before winter hit Wisconsin, the state would release funding and get to work on this pressing issue.

While all the funding was approved in the Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) for the purpose of combatting homelessness, Republicans opted to hold the money in their supplemental appropriation fund, instead of releasing the dollars to the agencies charged with implementing the programs. Governor Evers included a detailed list of the programs that the funds would be used for, including increases for the Homeless Prevention Program, State Shelter Subsidy Grants, the Housing Assistance Program, and the creation of grants for Housing Navigation, etc. Yet, Republicans held back the funds, waiting instead for their own package of bills to be signed into law. Once again choosing partisanship over the good of Wisconsin.

This legislation passed unanimously in both Senate and Assembly committees and before the full Assembly, but despite Democratic effort, Republicans blocked the bills in the Senate, and adjourned until January 2020.

On July 15, 2019 the Department of Administration (DOA) requested the release of the funds passed in the budget and several months later they have not received a response. Despite the funding already being designated for this purpose, Republicans are forcing our most vulnerable to needlessly wait while they leave for their holiday vacations.

jon-erpenbachGovernor Evers sent a letter to the Republican JFC Co-Chairs, Senator Alberta Darling and Representative John Nygren, to release the funds on November 14, 2019, and JFC Democrats followed the call by requesting that the JFC convene to release the funding. Still, Republicans have stayed silent on the once bipartisan issue.

Those who are facing homelessness should not have to wait through the freezing Wisconsin winter months for Republicans to decide to do their job. There is support on both sides of the aisle for the legislation that was introduced by Republican Assembly members, yet Senate Republicans refuse to address this crucial issue.

Wisconsinites are sick of the constant political games. This is just another example of Republicans using tactics to stall progress in our state. Releasing the funds that the JFC is holding to combat homelessness should not be a partisan issue, and, with the funds already being slated for this purpose, the cost should not be preventing the programs from being executed.

Republicans have come out in support of these proposals. Democrats have pushed for the bills to be taken up in the Senate. Governor Evers has advocated for the funds. What is holding Senate Republicans back from taking the vote to help those in need?

There are only a few weeks left this year, and the legislature has yet to take up some of the most important issues to Wisconsinites. Wisconsinites expect more from their elected officials than to “play goalie” to issues that would have enormous positive impacts on our communities.

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The Ho-Chunk Code Talkers: Honoring Native American History

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 04 December 2019
in Wisconsin

wwii-code-talkersNative American Heritage Month is an important time to remind ourselves of our country’s past, the role of the World War II Ho-Chunk Code Talkers, and honor Native Americans’ contributions to our country.


BRUNSWICK, WI - Since 1990, our country has recognized November as Native American Heritage Month. This commemorative month provides an opportunity to remember Native Americans’ roles in our country’s history and appreciate their cultural contributions. This should be a time for us to look deeper into our history and the contributions of all Americans.

Native American Heritage Month is an important time to remind ourselves of our country’s cruel past and violence towards Tribal Nations. During this month, we also honor Native Americans’ remarkable contributions to our country, including the World War II code talkers. The code talkers’ service is an example to the fortitude and social fabric within Native American tribes. Their role in World War II tells the story of American endurance, collaboration and the importance of sharing our strengths and skills.

ho-chunk-code-talkers-medalsHistory is often re-written by those with privilege to remove disturbing, violent accounts. We grew up learning of the Thanksgiving story and the “friendly” relationship between early settlers and the Indigenous people. This story disregards our country’s troubled past, while also ignoring the important role Native Americans have had in American history.

Our country has a complex, painful history regarding the treatment of Native Americans. Despite attempts to help European settlers when they first arrived, Native Americans were forcibly removed from their land, introduced to deadly diseases and became victims of mass genocide. For many decades, even as late as the 1950s, white Americans suppressed members of the Tribal Nations, forcibly placing children in boarding schools and promoting assimilation policies in an attempt to destroy their culture.

Many Native Americans still held onto their native languages, despite this traumatic history and the attempts to strip them of their heritage. During the World Wars of the twentieth century, members from Tribal Nations were willing to enlist and fight for the same values that other soldiers believed in. As Native American members joined the military, they realized their ability to speak another language would make it difficult for enemies to interpret intercepted messages. These enlisted members of Native American tribes became known as code talkers.

Although Native Americans were enlisted for this important duty, they still faced challenges working predominately with English-speaking soldiers.

jeff-smithI heard a story about an enlisted Ho-Chunk Code Talker, selected for this role because he could speak his native language. He began his assignment in the radio room waiting for a message with a commanding officer. When a message arrived, the code talker couldn’t understand the sender’s message. The officer was puzzled and demanded to know why he told them he could speak his native language but then couldn’t understand this message. He replied that he is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and the sender was speaking Navajo. This anecdote reminds us of the presumptions we may have of others, but the importance of learning from others’ backgrounds.

As a nation of many cultures, religions and ethnicities, we should celebrate the code talkers’ legacy and their contribution to our country’s history. With this in mind, I recently introduced legislation to designate a stretch of Interstate 90 from La Crosse to Tomah in honor the

Ho-Chunk code talkers for their instrumental role protecting our values of freedom and democracy.

This bipartisan proposal is one small measure to honor Native Americans in our state, but we must do better to educate ourselves of these vital roles that are, too often, overlooked in our country’s history. Be sure to do what you can to learn more about our country’s history by listening, reading and having conversations with others.

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What Are You Thankful For?

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 27 November 2019
in Wisconsin

uwec-teacherworkshopSen. Smith reflects on the amazing conversations he had and the lessons he learned during his first year representing the 31st Senate District.


BRUNSWICK, WI - We’re nearing the end of another year and already getting ready for Thanksgiving. Everything seems to speed up during these last weeks as we prepare for the holiday season and the New Year. As we try to slow things down, we have time to reflect on and remember what we accomplished this year and ask ourselves what we’re thankful for.

Personally, I have many reasons to be grateful. Barely a year ago, I was elected as your state senator, something I’m eternally grateful for. In the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and learn from community members and connect with legislators from across the state and country. While reflecting on the year and anticipating the time ahead, we must remember to listen, respect and learn. Let’s all do our best to build relationships and develop trust to make our state the place we want to leave for our children and future generations.

Learning really is a lifelong experience. Serving as your senator, I’m given more opportunities to learn than most people get. My personal style of listening evolved, allowing me to be outdoors and visible to constituents. During the week, I’d take out my truck and park, hoist up my flags and the Stop ‘n Talk sign and invite anyone to have a conversation. My mobile office hours offered the opportunity for folks to talk as they headed home from work or on the way to an event.

jeff-smithI’m thankful for all of the amazing advocates who visited me in my office or on the streets and shared personal stories, experiences and lessons. You can visit my Facebook page and find pictures and descriptions from many of my Stop ‘n Talks.

When I’m not in the district, I also have the fortunate opportunity to learn from Capitol colleagues, staff, statewide advocates and people serving in other parts of our great Nation. This past year, I met with community leaders at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) annual Legislative Summit and the NCSL Broadband and Cable Policy Summit. In fact, these were the best opportunities I had to mingle with legislators from the other side of the aisle. These learning opportunities make me a more knowledgeable and well-rounded representative for you. I’m thankful for any opportunity to listen and learn other perspectives and ideologies.

Although I had incredible experiences, this year also presented some challenges. After all, before I was even sworn in, Republicans passed new laws in a lame duck session that limited the powers of the governor and attorney general. It wasn’t a good start to the 2019 legislative session and the Republican’s failure to work with us hasn’t improved.

There’s more to be grateful for than the challenges that set us back. We must remember to rise above and remember everything we are grateful for. I’m truly thankful for shared governance. After all, democracy was always meant to be a shared style representing the people. This was Wisconsin’s first attempt at shared governance since 2008. In 2009-10 Democrats had the governor’s office and majorities in both houses and Republicans had the same from 2011 until this year.

Let’s be thankful for the prospect of shared governance and a new opportunity to work together. Hopefully by next Thanksgiving, I can share there’s been more opportunity to build relationships and trust with colleagues from the other side of the aisle.

Thanksgiving means different things to different people. It’s a time when we get together with family and friends. Maybe it’s a time for others to get away from those family and friends or the obnoxious uncle pushing political views at the Thanksgiving table. We need to come together and appreciate our commonalities and celebrate this unifying tradition. It’s called Thanksgiving for a reason – giving is how we pay forward, while we give thanks for what has been passed on to us.

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Stop the Spread of CWD

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 20 November 2019
in Wisconsin

hunting-deerThree days away from gun hunting season, Sen. Smith writes about the threat CWD poses to the future of hunting in Wisconsin and legislation introduced to help stop the spread of this disease.


BRUNSWICK, WI - We’re only three days away from gun hunting season in Wisconsin. Hunters are prepared and eagerly anticipating the time to look out from their deer stand. It would seem Wisconsin is prepared for the upcoming hunting season.

Think again. Wisconsin hasn’t done nearly enough to curb the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). The disease sounds scary enough without even knowing all the details... and it’s continuing to spread. As conservationists and hunters, we must test our deer and stay educated to understand the threat it poses to the future of hunting in Wisconsin and the ramifications on our rural economies and public health.

deerCWD is caused by abnormal proteins called prions, which lead to brain damage and attack the central nervous system. According to the Centers for Disease Control, CWD affects many different species of hoofed animals including whitetail deer. CWD belongs to a family of diseases called prion diseases, which also includes Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, understood as “mad cow disease” in people.

CWD is always fatal. Scientists believe CWD spreads between animals through direct contact with contaminated body fluids and tissue or indirectly through exposure in the environment while drinking water or sharing food. Due to the easy nature of CWD spreading, there are serious concerns raised about commercial deer and elk farms that force animals around one feeding area.

With over 380 registered commercial deer and elk operations in our state, it’s critical there are measures in place to prevent the spread of CWD. Officials have ordered warnings and bans on baiting and feeding stations and there’s been recent discussion about fence height and other needed regulations.

There’s more we must do to stop the spread of CWD – hunters must test their deer and properly dispose of their deer carcasses. Prions make CWD such a scary disease because they can survive in extreme temperatures and never leave the soil. When an infected carcass is left in the woods or fields for other animals to feed on, predators can scatter the prions across the landscape. Even when a carcass isn’t fed on, but just left to decay into the soil, prions can live in the roots and plants for the next deer to feed on and potentially become infected.

Scared yet? We all should be.

I’ve taken action with my legislative colleagues to get a grip on the spread of this deadly disease. Recently, we introduced legislation to address the spread of CWD in a few different ways. A bipartisan group of legislators introduced Senate Bill (SB) 325, which would require the Department of Natural Resources to create a carcass disposal grant program for county deer management advisory councils.

jeff-smithAdditionally, I authored legislation with my Democratic colleagues to promote CWD education and testing. SB 473 provides funding for CWD research; SB 474 requires the DNR to provide self-service CWD testing kiosks; SB 477 requires the DNR to provide carcass disposal dumpsters and CWD education. These measures and more are needed to address this critical issue facing our whitetail deer population and the great hunting heritage in Wisconsin.

Republican leadership hasn’t shown any inclination to move on CWD preventative measures this session. SB 325 is the only bill that’s had a public hearing; none of these bills have passed committee and been voted on. With that in mind, I stood before my senate colleagues during floor session on November 5th and requested SB 474 be moved to the calendar for a vote. Disappointingly, my motion was struck down on a partisan vote. So here we are, going into another hunting season without the additional resources to halt this dreaded disease from spreading further.

I’ll continue advocating for these preventative measures, but we still need hunters to test their deer and properly dispose of their deer carcasses. Learn about the steps you can take to stop the spread through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

This Saturday, I’ll be joining Senator Patty Schachtner and DNR officials to visit CWD Kiosks and carcass disposal sites in Eau Claire. If you see me, please do not hesitate to stop and talk. I want to hear from you.

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