In January, Ismael Ozanne gave the keynote address during an awards banquet where three Madison high school seniors, all of them minorities, were awarded college scholarships.
Charming and charismatic, Ozanne, 42, speaks frequently of the need to close the racial achievement gap in Madison schools, a problem that, from his perspective, feeds the racial disparities in Dane County's criminal justice system.
"Without the tools to succeed, failure is almost certain," Ozanne told the largely black audience. "That's why the projections for future prisons are based on the number of third and fourth graders who are reading below grade level."
The address to Women in Focus came nearly one month after the Madison School Board's rejection of Madison Prep, the charter school proposed by the Urban League of Greater Madison to boost graduation rates for minority students.
At the banquet, held at the Monona Terrace, Ozanne - Wisconsin's first black district attorney - spelled out the grim realities facing Madison's black youth. Fewer than 50% will leave high school with a diploma. Some 75% will go on to work menial jobs. Many will spend time in jail or prison. Ozanne, a Madison native, said he intends to change this.
"I'm working to…better protect our children from neglect and abuse," he said, "and in doing so keeping them from becoming delinquent and entering our criminal justice system."
In two to five years, he continued, to applause, "People will no longer be able to say that racial disparities in Dane County are the worst in the nation."
Ozanne has spent the whole of his career in public safety, first as a prosecutor in the Dane County District Attorney's Office and then as deputy secretary at the Department of Corrections. In July 2010, former Gov. Jim Doyle appointed him as Dane County District Attorney to replace Brian Blanchard, who was elected to a state appellate court.
Doyle passed over two inside choices: Tim Kiefer and Tim Verhoff, who have both since left the office. Doyle says it was Ozanne's 10 years with the office in addition to the management experience he gained at Corrections that allowed him to edge out the other contenders.
He has since earned high marks from staff. Last year he ramped up his public profile considerably by filing a complaint charging that Republican lawmakers violated Wisconsin's open meeting statute when they passed Gov. Scott Walker's controversial collective bargaining reform bill.
Having served just under two years, Ozanne - who is known casually as Ish - hopes voters in November's general election will give him four more so he can put his stamp on one of the most powerful offices in government. Barring the emergence of a challenger, Ozanne will likely coast to victory.
But making good on his promise to improve the racial disparity in Dane County - and, by extension, the way Dane County administers justice - is a formidable challenge. Ozanne is taking on a longstanding problem that his predecessor often spoke of but did little to address.
Ozanne concedes that DAs alone cannot solve the problem, but key to providing more money for education is reducing the amount spent on corrections. Ozanne has made small improvements on this front, offering low-level offenders plea deals earlier in the process.
While defense attorneys praise Ozanne for "the tone" he has set and the "experience he brings," some are impatient with his progress so far, accusing the office of continuing what they saw as Blanchard's overbearing charging practices.
"So many of us were hoping…for a significant change with him," says criminal defense attorney Stephen Hurley, who calls Ozanne "just a swell guy."
"So far, nothing's changed."
But Doyle has faith in his protégée. "Ish has seen the system from being a lowly assistant doing traffic cases to spending time at corrections," he says. "He's got the kind of background to make the changes that need to be made."
Understaffed and barebones
District attorneys often speak of the need for reform within the criminal justice system, but rarely do their speeches translate to quantitative changes in how justice is meted out.
The change eyed by Ozanne is deceptively simple: to fund education with savings from reductions in the number of people entering and reentering the criminal justice system.
"The only way we can turn the tide and actually stop the immense amount of funds that go into corrections is to figure out how to ensure that these people don't come back into the system," he says. "My hope is that this office can lead that discussion."
He says that even a 5% reduction in recidivism would shave "an incredible amount of savings" from Corrections' $1.2 billion annual budget.
As deputy secretary for Corrections, Ozanne helped manage Wisconsin's largest agency, which employs roughly 10,000 people, incarcerates 20,000 others, and supervises another 70,000. According to Doyle, he helped usher in a variety of reforms that not only saved the state money, but also improved the offender experience.
One program allowed for the early release of non-violent offenders, a reform since rolled back by Gov. Walker. Another involved having mentally ill inmates spend less time in segregation.
"Had they not repealed everything, for the first time in Wisconsin's history we would've actually seen the prison population drop," Doyle says. "We gave Corrections the ability to give people incentives to actually come back into the community."
Fiscally, the District Attorney's Office is the polar opposite of Corrections - understaffed and running on a barebones budget. The office handles an ever-increasing number of cases, despite declining crime rates.
"Every time I open the paper it's like Madison police has hired 12 new officers," says deputy prosecutor Michelle Viste. "Yet, we don't grow in size. So police continue to make more arrests, which gives us more stuff to sort through."
Last year, more than 7,350 criminal cases from 25 law enforcement agencies funneled through the DA's office, with more experienced prosecutors managing upwards of 900 cases.
But the ranks of experienced prosecutors in Dane County are dwindling, mostly because they can no longer buy homes, start families or pay off student loans on a prosecutor's salary. In 2003, the state did away with regular raises for prosecutors, which made it virtually impossible for them to move up the pay scale.
Prior to Walker's Act 10, which stripped most public employees of their collective bargaining rights, prosecutors got socked with furlough days. Walker has also tried forcing prosecutors to take additional furlough days by threatening statewide layoffs.
Ozanne says that the "most important thing for the DA's office right now is being able to retain experience." But since his appointment, the office has lost eight seasoned prosecutors, or nearly one-third of its staff - a change that hasn't gone unnoticed by defense attorneys.
"I've been doing this for 29 years, and most of the DAs I see now are kids," says criminal defense attorney Stephen Eisenberg. "There used to be a network of people we knew, but now everyone is new."
Burden of proof
Trials are rare in Dane County. In fact, just .016% of felony cases and .004% of misdemeanor cases went to trial last year. Limited resources often drive charging decisions when it comes to prosecuting low-level misdemeanors, which constitute the bulk of cases.
"Deciding how to strategically utilize limited prosecutorial resources is one of a prosecutor's most important jobs," says UW-Madison law professor Cecilia Klingele.
Three deputies make the charging decisions on every case police send up and then farm them out to one of 27 prosecutors. Ozanne has eased the burden on prosecutors by encouraging them to fast-track defendants into diversion programs and to offer deals during a defendant's initial court appearance.
"We're getting people through the court system more efficiently," says Viste. "Little changes like these can make a big difference."
Additionally, the office doesn't currently prosecute marijuana possession, retail theft, drug paraphernalia, and many disorderly conduct cases.
"Ish is more selective in what he charges," says Eisenberg. "He's not wasting his time with cases that shouldn't be charged."
While Eisenberg applauds Ozanne in this regard, he would like to see changes made to the online court records system. Defendants acquitted of crimes or those who've had their charges dismissed shouldn't be listed on CCAP, he says: "It causes people a lot of problems."
Defense attorneys dislike online court records because too often employers and landlords use the information against prospective employees and tenants.
"Brian Blanchard, for whom I had no love whatsoever, would charge everybody with as much as he possibly could and then sort it out later," says Hurley. "He devastated a lot of lives in the process, because he gave them records even though they weren't records of conviction."
Both Viste and Ozanne say perceptions that the deputies charge everything are incorrect. "I've seen in other DA's offices where dismissing a case is frowned upon, but that's not the case here," says Viste, who handles misdemeanors. "If we can't meet our burden of proof, then the case gets dismissed."
Ozanne adds that while the office has some latitude in not charging low-level misdemeanors, it doesn't extend to major crimes. "If it's going to cost us $15,000 to prove a retail theft, we may have to look at that," he says. "But when you're talking about serious assaultive crimes, there is no bottom line."
Reaching kids early
The racial disparity in Dane County's criminal justice system refers to the disproportionate number of arrests and incarceration of black residents compared to their representation in the population.
Hurley says Ozanne could be doing more to address it. "We talk a great game about being progressive and enlightened, but we play a very bad one when it comes to race," he says. "The police begin the problem, but the DA exacerbates it, because the DA has the opportunity to filter the cases."
Ozanne says he needs to hold people accountable for breaking the law regardless of their race. He disagrees with Hurley's suggestion that the problem can be solved at the back end.
"What do you do? Not charge?" Ozanne asks. "Because if we're not charging this person, what does that say to the victim? You're not worthy? We have to address that behavior. If we went through every case in this office, you aren't going to find many people who are innocent."
The disparity, which was the subject of a 2005 study by UW-Madison sociology professor Pam Oliver, has been widely discussed over the last 15 years. Following the publication of her study, a task force assembled by Gov. Doyle was convened to look at the issue, followed by a county-level commission that developed a set of recommended solutions, few of which have been adopted. Ozanne sat on both bodies.
Countless factors contribute to the disparity, but a primary cause, Oliver notes, is the concentration of police resources in troubled neighborhoods, which tend to have large minority populations. "One of the paradoxes is that good policing may inadvertently catch minorities," she says.
Because of this, she continues, black youth are more likely to have criminal records than their white counterparts in less policed neighborhoods, "even though we know white kids smoke marijuana and do graffiti."
This, in turn, can create disparities in sentencing, because defendants with criminal histories typically receive longer sentences.
Ozanne says the trick will be reaching kids before they enter the juvenile system, by which time, he says, "it will be too late."
"We have to get all kids in school, we have to get all kids reading at grade level," he says. "We have to have the expectation that every kid goes to college and graduates college, and not just college, but graduate school."
'He could barely read'
Ozanne was born in Madison to working-class parents who divorced when he was young. As a child he moved frequently, living in several neighborhoods along Madison's isthmus by the time he reached West High School. Following the divorce, Ozanne lived with his mother, but his father remained a steady presence in his life.
"My dad would pick me up from [soccer] practice, take me home then help me with my homework," he says. "I sort of had the best of both worlds."
In fourth grade, his mother sent him to St. James Catholic Elementary School, in part for its religious education, but also because he'd fallen behind in Madison schools.
"When Ismael came to St. James he could barely read," says Kaleem Caire, a childhood friend and president of the Urban League of Greater Madison. "He went from being a marginal student to being a fairly good student in high school."
Ozanne rarely speaks publicly about the difficulties he had with reading as a child. When asked about it he says that he "learned differently," and suggested teachers at Longfellow Elementary were okay with him "doing just enough to get by."
At St. James, he says, teachers played to his strengths, though to catch up, he sacrificed many recesses.
"I was able to realize early that I had a good memory, but it takes me longer to get through material," he says. "A lot had to do with my parents and with my teachers, because they weren't looking to let me fail."
A gifted athlete, Ozanne gravitated toward sports from an early age, particularly soccer. In 1989, he was named Gatorade's Wisconsin Player of the Year.
"He was a phenomenal soccer player," says Caire. "He could run up the score in a high school game pretty quick."
But Ozanne's love for sports was tempered by the emphasis his parents, who've both worked as teachers in Madison schools, placed on education. "If I wanted the opportunity to play at the next level, I had to keep my grades up," Ozanne says.
His grandfather, Robert Ozanne, was also an educator. A longtime instructor at UW-Madison's School of Workers, Robert Ozanne helped establish several unions and wrote three books on labor theory and Wisconsin labor history.
"I've always seen the importance of unions and the importance of people having an influence on their condition," says Ozanne, who served on the bargaining committee for the Association of State Prosecutors before taking a management position with Corrections.
Soccer remained a big part of Ozanne's life after graduating from West High School. Finding a college with a reputable soccer program led him to UW-Madison.
"I thought, 'If I don't make it in sports or if I get injured or something happens, where would I get a good education, and where would I enjoy myself?'" he explains. "Madison was it."
As his dreams of playing pro soccer faded, the political science major began eyeing a career in public service following a stint as an Assembly page. He went on to law school, during which time he secured internships with the appellate project, providing legal assistance for prison inmates.
After earning his law degree in 1998, Ozanne was hired by Dane County DA Diane Nicks and embarked on his career as an assistant district attorney.
"I never saw myself as a prosecutor," he says. "I got an internship in this office with the Prosecution Project. I realized then that you had more of an opportunity to direct change within the system from this side."
Ozanne was a relatively unknown quantity when he took over as district attorney in 2010. But that changed after he filed his lawsuit in March 2011 charging that the proper public notice was not provided when lawmakers voted on Gov. Walker's collective bargaining bill.
Some conservatives accused Ozanne of playing politics, but Ozanne said his office looked strictly at process.
"If you don't have the knowledge of when to show up for a meeting, you can't show up," he says. "It doesn't matter if the doors are opened or closed. You need to know when to be present so your voice can be heard."
'A black man in a serious role'
These days, Ozanne doesn't have much time for sports, not even soccer. Married in 2002, he has two children, ages 4 and 2, who keep him pretty busy outside of work.
"Basically I work, go home, and play with my kids," he says. "If I had more time with my kids it'd be better."
Looking back on it, Caire is amazed at how far Ozanne has come since the two became friends on the playground of St. James.
"He was one of the brothers I grew up with who was doing something positive with his life," says Caire. "To have a black man in a serious role in this city gives our children something else to aspire to. That's a powerful thing for us in the black community."
Ozanne seems uneasy with the thought of having to campaign for office. So long as no one else enters the race by the June 1 cutoff, he'll be spared from having to fundraise during a presidential election year.
He dodges a question about his long-term political goals.
"I don't think there's been enough time for me to say I've done what I've needed to do in this position to actually have improved the community."