Dane County District Attorney Takes on Criminal Injustice

Ismael Ozanne should be commended for work around corporal punishment

Neil Heinen

Neil Heinen

I don’t remember the criminal justice system in this country ever being scrutinized as aggressively as it is today. Within the last twelve months, the civic dialogue regarding our prisons, who is in them and why, has gone from a statistically-supported argument that we have made some bad policy decisions to a growing conviction that the United States’s criminal justice system is broken—that it is short-sighted, ineffective, susceptible to politics at their worst and decidedly un-just.

American jails and prisons, in addition to warehousing people in numbers way out of whack from other modern, first-world, democratic nations, have become examples of our society’s worst shortcomings in the areas of mental health care, income inequality and racial disparities. But unlike the previous two decades at least, correction policies are being challenged and underlying issues are being addressed. And while we will no doubt have to drag our political leaders to reform kicking and screaming, current action on U.S. prison issues suggests it will happen. A couple of recent examples of this new thinking include Bill Keller’s decision to leave the New York Times after thirty years to become editor-in-chief of a nonprofit journalism startup focused on the American criminal justice system, and intrepid reporter/author Matt Taibbi’s new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, that makes the connection between America’s growing income and wealth inequality and inequalities in our criminal justice system.

But even more important, given that the impetus for reform will need to come from citizens and leaders at the local level, is what’s been going on in Wisconsin, especially here in Madison. To be sure, folks like the Rev. Jerry Hancock, Linda Ketcham from Madison Area Urban Ministry, Voices Beyond Bars and many others have been working tirelessly to provide support and care for inmates both inside the system and re-entering the community. But a few local government leaders have also taken action to affect change that is measureable and sustainable. And there’s no better example than Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne’s work around corporal punishment. With the exception of the highly successful drug courts in Dane County, and restorative justice programs before that, re-thinking how we deal with parents and how they discipline their kids seems to me to have a direct impact on who enters the criminal justice system and, as a result, who gets trapped there.

Of course, this particular issue also illustrates how difficult it is to initiate a strategic approach to racial disparities in the criminal justice system. How one disciplines one’s child is about as loaded as a question of parenting gets. One person’s spanking is another person’s child abuse. A fair number of us remember a swat, or more, on the butt as a part of child rearing passed down through generations. And rightly or wrongly, and there appears to be at least some disagreement on the issue, there may be cultural differences in how one views punishing children. Regardless, some smart and thoughtful folks in the DA’s office and concerned community members have identified problems with our standardized approach to corporal punishment cases, and Ozanne’s office has created a new alternative approach that includes diversion to the deferred prosecution unit when appropriate. I’m confident these professionals can tell a child abuse case from an opportunity to educate and inform parental decision making. There’s no doubt this office is not going to stop coming down hard on legitimate child abuse cases. But recognizing opportunities to help a parent re-think his or her approach to disciplining a kid, and perhaps identifying behavior or communications styles that might be misinterpreted and thus mishandled in the system, should keep some folks from a record that can impact their lives and at the same time make for a healthier family. That’s just smart. To the extent it is also courageous I give Ozanne credit for taking this on.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

Find more of his columns here.

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