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New Dane County District Attorney Tackles Racial Disparities

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By A. David Dahmer, Special to the NNPA from The Madison Times –

The 13th annual Autumn Gathering reception was held recently at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, in Madison, WI. The Madison Network of Black Professionals, Monona Terrace Convention Center, and The Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) hosted the event, which featured a talk by keynote speaker Ismael Ozanne, the Dane County district attorney. Ozanne is the first African-American district attorney in Wisconsin's history.

The Autumn Gathering was initiated 13 years ago as a way for convention sales managers from the GMCVB to introduce themselves to the business leaders within the African American community. During the years, this networking opportunity has grown to include many ethnically diverse business leaders and groups in the Madison area. The goal of the reception is for the GMCVB to connect with business leaders who belong to national associations and work through these contacts to bring more multi-cultural association convention business to Madison.

As part of his keynote speech, Ozanne talked about the racial disparities within the criminal justice system. Wisconsin has routinely ranked at or near the top of states for the rate it locks up Blacks compared to Whites. Ozanne talked about some of his experiences as a prosecutor in the Dane County District Attorney’s Office.

“What I found is that the young White kids coming in had attorneys and had parents and oftentimes before I could get out the true nature of what drug court is, the parents were telling the child, “Do you understand that this is what you are going to be doing? This is where you will be going,” Ozanne said. “ Oftentimes, I had minorities come in who didn't have an attorney or a parent with them and I'd explain to them what drug court was. They would tell me that, 'I don't need that' and I couldn't tell somebody what they need,” he continued. “I couldn't force somebody to do something.”

Despite Dane County's progressive tradition, half of Black men between the ages of 25 and 29 residing in the county are either incarcerated or under court-ordered supervision. “It's a community issue,” Ozanne said. “How do we educate our community? How do we teach our youth that you have to start thinking about tomorrow?”

Ozanne recently filled the vacancy created by the election of Brian Blanchard to the District IV Court of Appeals. Ozanne spent 10 years as a prosecutor in the Dane County District Attorney’s Office, before being appointed executive assistant at the Department of Corrections. Since 2009, Ozanne has served as the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Corrections. Ozanne talked about his role as a prosecutor.

“My role in my mind is to make sure that the system has integrity — that a crime on this side of town is the same as a crime on that side of town,” he said. “The problem that you have though is that it's not always easy to prove a crime in my neighborhood … if I live in Shorewood or Maple Bluff... if I live in a house... there are a lot of things that happen that I can't prove unless somebody is willing to give me information or somebody is willing to call the police.” If a crime happens outside, Ozanne continued, there are more people that see it. “If it happens in an apartment building, I have more opportunity as a prosecutor to have more witnesses,” he says. “So you have some problems when you have outdoor areas where the police can see drug deals openly. The problem you have with that is that we may not look at the possession equally and that's what you have to do. We have to be able to say that six rocks on one person is the same as six rocks on another person.”

How do we address the behavior so that we can hopefully take the drugs out of the community? “It's not necessarily the drug but all of the crimes surrounding that drug that truly has an impact on your safety,” Ozanne told the crowd. “I don't know how many of you know but we have an opiate problem. It starts out with maybe pills that they got through a cabinet or a friend and then they move on to straight heroin. It's cheaper, it's more powerful.”

The district attorney's office does not know how many more drug users there are in the community, but they do know that they are seeing a rise in armed robberies and burglaries and are finding people with more drug paraphernalia. “When they get caught, they talk about their addiction,” Ozanne said. “And, that directly effects your safety in the community.” Ozanne said he has talked to people in Milwaukee who have found that they have a drug issue at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “When they actually looked at the people who were involved in the drug use and where they were coming from.... they were coming from here,” Ozanne said. “Not just Madison, but the surrounding communities — DeForest, Oregon, Verona — and going to school there and having drug issues there.

“The response from property owners when you have a poor neighborhood or when you have a drug house [is that] they are perfectly willing to get people out and to close that thing down,” Ozanne continued. “The problem we were facing when you have this neighborhood near the college and you have students there whose parents are paying the rent and who look clean cut, the landlords are calling us trying to get these people back in. Now that's a disparity. That's what you need to figure out how do we address that. Those are things that we have to talk about in the community. They aren't always nice things, but that's where we have to start.”

According to a recent study by Pam Oliver, a UW sociology professor, Black men in Dane County are 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than White men. And, according to a Justice Policy Institute report in 2007, Black men in Dane County were 97 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes, the second-highest rate in the nation. Ozanne said that his role as a prosecutor is to keep integrity in the system, to educate the community, and to try to address some of the serious issues.

“I don't think there is anybody out there in my office who says, ‘I'm going to go out there today and convict a Black person or a Latino person,'” Ozanne says. “But the number of people of color in the system is disproportionate to the number of people of color in our community.”

There are issues of crime that he is not afraid to deal with sternly. “I guarantee you that we will try to convict those who commit violent crimes and we will try to put them away for as long as we can,” Ozanne says. “I don't think there is any excuse for violence or crimes against children. That is simple and that's the easy part of my job. The hard part of my job is sort of pushing the other side because the only way that we're going to get ahead of this curve is not for me to say, ‘everybody who comes in will get incarcerated and prosecuted to the fullest our ability.'

Ozanne, who received his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School, is active in civic organizations and youth sports. Ozanne and his wife, Stacy, have two young children and live in Madison.

“The only way to get ahead is looking and seeing who is the next generation and how we change that next generation,” he said. “Studies show that child neglect has lasting effects on children to the point where we may not be able to reverse them. We need to understand that neglect is not poverty. Because you're poor does not mean you are neglecting your children. But when I talk about drug-endangered children is when you walk into a home and there is a 55-inch plasma TV on the wall and there's a really nice car in the driveway and there's a parent laying on the floor passed out from drugs or alcohols and that four year old child is out on the street. That's neglect.

“If we don't change something for those children, they will get to the juvenile system, they will get through the juveniles system and get in the criminal system for adults,” he continued. “And we will not be able to fix that person once they get there. It's easy for us to get ahead of this curve, but there has to be partnerships — with my office and human services, schools, etc. We have to guarantee that kids that don't have food at home will get food in schools. We have to guarantee that schools will be safe. We have to focus on that. We have to get ahead of that curve.”

Ozanne talked about a program he is involved in where he would talk with young African-American males about life and about making choices.

“Once you teach somebody that they have choices, they start to realize that they have power,” Ozanne said. “And once they realize that they have power, they start to have self-esteem. Once they have self-esteem, they get away from violence.... you don't have to prove yourself in that way any more … you have choices. A lot of this is stuff that everybody in this room has learned through their parents and their families. Some of those young men have never had those role models to teach them that. And, that's what we're up against.”


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