Dane County DA Isamel Ozanne Running for Reelection
|Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne believes that the
DA needs to be an agent of change as well as the manager of
the county’s criminal justice system.
Ismael Ozanne, the current Dane County District Attorney, views his job as an activist position that effects social change.
Ozanne has been the DA since 2010 when he was appointed by Governor James Doyle and won the DA’s office outright in the 2012 election.
When Ozanne met with Doyle during the appointment process, they discussed Doyle’s own activist philosophy that led him to create the first
offenders program when he was DA.
“He talked to me about his vision for a district attorney in Dane County and what he had done as a district attorney in Dane County and how he
had actually gotten out in the community,” Ozanne said. “He didn’t know why people who came after him did not. He understood that it is
perfectly appropriate for district attorneys to say that they are just going to take cases and that is all they are going to do. But he saw this office
actually having so much more potential to push change and make the system more equitable and strengthen the community and make it safer.
That is a discussion that we had. I think that is likely why I was appointed and not others.”
As the district attorney in Dane County, Ozanne has had some difficult decisions to make including on the constitutionality of ACT 10 shortly
after he took office and on whether or not to charge the Madison police officer in the death of Tony Robinson.
“I’ve had some decisions that I think would have tested anyone,” Ozanne said. “I hope the community feels that I have addressed those
decisions in a manner that they can understand have integrity and was done in a caring and just manner. And I think the reaction that you’ve
seen in how this community has handled both of those situations and that at least with the Tony Robinson scenario, we didn’t have some of the
reactions that other places in the nation had. It’s not to say that people were happy with my decision. I don’t pretend to say that at all. But I
think they understood how I came to my decision. I think they understood the difficult nature of that decision. And hopefully they understood that
I am committed to making positive change in moving us forward to a more equitable and better — and not just effective — criminal justice
During the past four years, Ozanne has tried to impact the system to make it more equitable and just. One of the biggest accomplishments in
this area is his work — in collaboration with others — to create the community restorative justice pilot project that is being implemented at
Fountain of Life Church.
“There was a conscious effort not to have it housed in the district attorney’s office or in the courts because we wanted it to be truly a
restorative justice effort that addresses criminal violations for 17-25-year-olds for misdemeanor violations in a criminal justice setting that is
outside of the courts, which I believe would be a national leader once it is actually up and running,” Ozanne said. “It is up and running, but
once it is actually expanded and we can say it’s applying to everyone in the county, it could have some serious impact on resources, but the
biggest impact it could have is truly a strengthening of the relationship between the community and law enforcement. It could save money in
the long run. If people are addressed in a manner where they can accept responsibility, we can repair harm and hopefully ensure that through
the restorative justice model that something is done so these offenses are not repeated, yes it could truly save resources within the court
system, within our office and within law enforcement and strengthen the community as a whole.”
One of the areas that Ozanne has focused on is child abuse and the corporal punishment of children, an issue that has long been a sore spot
with the African American community where some feel that corporal punishment is a necessity and a right of a parent whereas the larger
community has been evolving its view on corporal punishment into one that believes no corporal punishment is warranted. This has led a
disproportionate number of African Americans to be referred on child abuse charges.
“I actually — along with our child abuse initiative which is creating a diversion program in situations where there is excessive corporal
punishment — did a PSA regarding positive parenting,” Ozanne said. “We have actually implemented a true prevention initiative with our No
Hit Zone. And we are getting national attention for that. We were flown out to Old Dominion in Virginia to speak about our diversion program
and our No Hit Zone. I think they are actually going to have a No Hit Zone in their children’s hospital there. I believe the UW is going to be
coming on board in this next year with a No Hit Zone and a prevention effort focused on positive parenting. We got a call from the DA in Atlanta
talking about our prevention and our No Hit Zones. So we are getting national notice. It’s not necessarily something that people are seeing. But
if you Google No Hit Zone, we’re going to pop up second on that national Google search behind Kentucky, which was the first place to have a
No Hit Zone in their children’s hospital. And we are contacted on a weekly basis from other groups looking for information on No Hit Zones and
on positive parenting. And so I think in this next coming year, you’re going to see a lot of those groups coming on board with a No Hit Zone of
their own. That allows us to have that conversation in the community about positive parenting, about early brain development and hopefully
making sure that all people in the community have all of the information so we can make the best decisions in how to interact with children
and get them to have the most positive opportunities possible to succeed.”
Ozanne’s motivation in this area comes, in part, from his work as deputy secretary of the WI Dept. of Corrections during the Doyle
administration. It was there that he began to connect the dots between those incarcerated and child abuse and neglect.
“The majority of those people incarcerated also had childhoods littered with abuse and neglect,” Ozanne said. “And so I got here and we got
hit with a spike in abuse and neglect numbers. When we looked at those, we had 174 cases in 2011 and in 2012, they jumped to 300 going
close to 400 cases. When we looked at those numbers of the first 174 cases, 54 percent were persons of color in a community that is made up
of 15 percent persons of color. That was the impetus. But when I connected these dots, I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ What became clear is that in
this office, we needed to educate ourselves about implicit bias, about explicit racism, about white privilege, about the culture in and around
religious belief, historical belief, around corporal punishment and physical discipline. And we did just that.”
We sent people to San Diego. We sent people to Loyola, to conferences about abuse and neglect, to conferences about physical discipline. We
had people certified in the parenting curriculum so that we could actually provide parenting classes for free because we knew that some
people wouldn’t be able to at the time. We went to a white privilege conference, which luckily was actually being presented here in Madison.
We sent people to the YWCA’s conference on race. We did everything that we could to educate ourselves. And then we went and created our
child abuse initiative.
By Jonathan Gramling
There are several ways that one can approach the job of Dane County
District Attorney. One is to view the job in narrow parameters, just being
focused on making decisions about and prosecuting cases brought to it by
the law enforcement agencies within Dane County. As state government and
inflation keep shrinking the DA’s budget, the DA would focus on making it
more efficient — doing more work with less money — which then runs the
risk of turning the DAs office into what one former DA called “a sausage
factory” where the process is served even if justice isn’t.
Or a district attorney can view the DA’s office as a system within a larger
environment where elements of that environment positively and negatively
impact the resources and focus of the DA’s office including the number of
people coming through the system. In order to attain the goals of the DA’s
office and the criminal justice system, the DA needs to influence those
factors in a way that benefits the quantity and quality of what the Das office is