Tough (but smart) on crime
by A. David Dahmer
“We've been to Hayward, St. Croix, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Lafayette, Fond du Lac, Oconomowoc, Milwaukee, and we're looking to get out to just about everywhere we can more than once,” says Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne who is running in the Democratic primary for the state of Wisconsin attorney general. “I've heard many different perspectives and what I can tell you is that the people in the state of Wisconsin want someone to stand up for our shared values. The reality is this: whether you're in rural Wisconsin or urban Wisconsin, Wisconsinites don't want two Wisconsins. They don't want one road for power and privilege and one road for the rest of us. Everyone wants a fair shake and they want someone who will stand up for our shared values.”
Ozanne became the first African American district attorney in the state when he was appointed to the job in 2010 by Gov. Jim Doyle. He had also been a Dane County assistant district attorney and executive assistant and deputy secretary in the state Department of Corrections.
“I'm getting very positive responses as I campaign around the state. I think they like that I have a lot of experience and they agree that I am uniquely qualified,” Ozanne tells The Madison Times in an interview at The Madison Club in downtown Madison. “I'm the only candidate —Republican or Democrat — with experience of helping to run a statewide agency. And not just any statewide agency; the largest one we have — the Department of Corrections. As deputy secretary, I was in charge of 10,000 employees and [had] a budget of $1.2 billion. We can't kid ourselves; experience does matter and the Department of Justice is a statewide agency. I think that has resonated with Wisconsinites. They expect and deserve that their attorney general is a frontline prosecutor — which I am. I have a track record of standing up for the rights of all of the citizens of Wisconsin.”
Smart on crime
What are the key issues in the Ozanne campaign?
“Job number-one is public safety. I think that I am tough on crime and have been tough on crime,” Ozanne says. “I spent five weeks of last year in a very serious child abuse and neglect case. I don't shy away from the tough cases.
“I'm tough on crime, but I'm also smart on crime,” Ozanne continues. “Obviously, we're dealing with some of the most serious law-enforcement issues that communities have to face — increased opiate/heroin abuse, increased domestic violence, Internet predators, human trafficking, and child abuse and neglect. But I think that more and more people are understanding that if we can be proactive and focus our resources, we can have a greater impact on the system and on community safety as well as save a lot of money.”
Ozanne goes on to list a variety of other issues that he considers to be very important to him and his campaign.
“The attorney general must make sure that women have the ability to make their own health care decisions,” he says. “The attorney general must stop voter suppression. He must vigorously enforce our environmental laws and protect our public trust doctrine. The attorney general must protect our consumers and our seniors.
“That's the nice thing about our system,” Ozanne adds. “The attorney general is not like the federal system tucked under the executive system. The attorney general is stand alone and the people's attorney.”
Ozanne said that one thing the Wisconsin State Legislature can do right now to help public safety is to adopt a Silver Alert System — a public notification system used elsewhere in the United States to broadcast information about missing persons. Silver Alert is especially geared towards seniors with Alzheimer's Disease, dementia, or other mental disabilities — in order to aid in their return.
“People need to get out there and let their Legislature know that this is something that we absolutely need,” Ozanne says. “It's essential to public safety. For people suffering from dementia — no matter what age — they will have a system in place where we can quickly communicate with the communities and those out and about on the roads and they can actually help law enforcement find somebody who has wandered off or may be confused. I think it is something that will save lives and give people a sense of security where they will know what to do and where to turn if one of their loved ones happens to go missing.”
Replicating Dane County’s best practices statewide
Ozanne, who is a lifelong resident of Dane County and a graduate of Madison West High School and the University of Wisconsin, says that many of the successful programs in Madison can be tailored to any community throughout the state and have a great impact on strengthening that community's safety.
“Every community is somewhat different, but I will tell you that the Focused Deterrence Model that we're partnering on with Madison for violent offenders who are in our community now is working,” he says. “We're notifying those offenders that have shown a propensity to violence and victimization of our community and we are telling them as a law-enforcement front — the U.S. attorney, U.S. marshalls, F.B.I., city of Madison, Dane County Sheriff, Department of Corrections — [that] there will be no more violent offenses. And if you commit another violent offense, we will prosecute you to the fullest and we will ask for the maximum penalty. But the real power of the program is that we have just as many community providers and community members who are saying to these same offenders, 'No more violence. We are here to help you — help you get connected to stable housing, employment, mental health counseling and whatever it is that you need to become a productive member of the community.' It's the community and the criminal justice system being proactive and focusing resources on violent offenders. That can happen in any community. And it can happen in every community, because every community has its own violent offenders.”
At the request of the Dane County District Attorney’s Office Deferred Prosecution Unit, the Dane County Office of Equal Opportunity, with the support of the Dane County Criminal Justice Council applied for and was awarded $80,000 grant from the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance to help address the rising problem of opiate abuse.
“We've expanded our diversion counselors specifically for opiate-addicted offenders and we're working on a risk assessment tool specific to opiate-addicted offenders which at this point seems like it might be the first in the state and maybe in the country specific to opiate-addicted offenders.” he says. “Once we have that developed, that will be a great tool to share with the state and anyone else who would care to use it.”
Attorney General for the people
Ozanne filed an open-meetings lawsuit against legislative leaders in 2011 connected to the passage of Act 10.
“One of the biggest difference between me and the current attorney general is my challenge to ACT 10. [Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen] could have addressed the open meetings violation but he chose not to. And, I took our challenge straight to the Supreme Court,” Ozanne says. “I felt very strongly then as I do now that it was about making sure we protect our access to our own government — the citizens of the State of Wisconsin. It was about making sure that those who write the laws are also accountable to the laws. I think it's very important that we stand up every day for transparency and open government. I think I have a track record of showing the citizens of Wisconsin what type of attorney general I would be.”
Racial disparities area hot topic throughout Dane County and Wisconsin and Ozanne says that a recent study of Dane County’s racial disparities confirms we must do considerable work.
“When I took office in 2010, they told us that racial disparities was the worst in the nation in Wisconsin. We're definitely dealing with that problem as a whole,” Ozanne says. “[With] my experience in the Department of Corrections and handling the Department's response to the racial disparities study that Gov. Doyle had commissioned [and] working on Act 28 sentencing reform that we were actually able to implement while I was at the Department of Corrections, we are really showing that you can help to create positive change in people while they are either incarcerated or under supervision to have a better impact on public safety when those people come back into the community either from the institution or off of supervision.
“But we can't fix the system from the back end moving forward,” he adds. “We have to work on proactive measures and diversion to try and keep people out of the system if it is appropriate and we can do it safely.”
In Dane County this year, Ozanne says, they are looking to create a Youthful Offender Community Court for 17-25 year-olds for low-level misdemeanors. “Law enforcement can refer them straight to that community court and they can be held responsible and accept responsibility and be connected to educational training, counseling, and whatever they need to earn their way back into adulthood without a criminal conviction that will follow them for the rest of their lives,” he says. “We have to be able to make sure that we can re-engage and reconnect youth back into education and the community so that they can be positive members of the community.”
Ozanne also says he will be looking to try and create a Division of Civil Rights within the Attorney General's Office. “Obviously, I will have to look to the Legislature for authority, but I think that it's time that we had a division in our attorney generals' office and the Department of Justice's office for the citizens of the state of Wisconsin to be able to bring issues [to us] when they think that their rights have been violated,” he says.
Ozanne has been endorsed by former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager and Former Secretary of State Vel Phillip along with Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. “I'm proud of all of these great endorsements and we will be rolling more out as they come,” he says.
So what is Ozanne’s quick “elevator speech” to a voter on why he or she should vote for him in the Aug. 12 primary?
“I'm uniquely qualified. I've been a frontline prosecutor for 13 years. I've tried hundreds of cases from first-time drunk driving to first-degree intentional homicide,” he says. “[I’m] the only one with experience in helping to lead a statewide agency. I'm looking to head one of our most-important statewide agencies. I'm working very closely with law enforcement to be tough on crime but also smart on crime. Dealing with these law-enforcement issues is not theory to me; it's what I deal with on a day-to-day basis.
“What you also need to know about me is that I'm a sixth-generation Wisconsinite. We can trace those ancestors back to 1842,” he adds. “My grandparents came from Neenah, Wis. My grandmother still lives outside of Two Rivers, Wis. My grandpa taught high school in Wisconsin. My dad was also a teacher. My mom is currently a teacher — she teaches reading at J.C. Wright Middle School. My family has taught me a great deal about the importance of justice and the power of the law and the importance of family and community and the value of being a public servant — which I've been my entire career.”
That's a long elevator ride.
“Well, yes. But, maybe, we are in the Sears Tower,” Ozanne laughs. “The reality is that I believe my track record puts me a place where citizens are comfortable with me and don't have to wonder what I would be like as an attorney general. I have a proven record for standing up for the citizens of the state of Wisconsin.”