Ismael Ozanne

Recently re-elected Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said in August he wanted to increase his focus on restorative justice alternatives such as the Community Restorative Court. 

SAIYNA BASHIR --- The Capital Times

A work group of Dane County leaders experienced in criminal justice recommends expanding a restorative justice program and jail sentence alternatives and making them priorities in upcoming county budget deliberations.

Sup. Paul Rusk, chair of the Public Protection & Judiciary Committee, said the committee pushed the Diversion Programs Workgroup to finish its analysis before the county’s budget process. 

Dane County Board Chair Sharon Corrigan said how much of the recommendations the county can fund depends on County Executive Joe Parisi's budget, which he is scheduled to release by Oct. 1. She emphasized that criminal justice reform is a priority of the county, exemplified in funding an equity and criminal justice council coordinator staff position.

"Addressing racial disparities in our community is important," Corrigan said. "For individuals who are involved in the criminal justice system and for taxpayers, this is an important issue to dig into because racial bias hurts individuals, but it doesn't make our community safer and it costs a lot."  

The most recent work group report includes its top eight recommendations. They range from creating a more comprehensive deferred prosecution program to connecting individuals with mental health challenges to services to. 

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who sat on the work group, highlighted a fast track intake unit within his office to be able to respond to cases more quickly and improving mental health assistance. 

"I think a lot of what we’re seeing in the community has to do with some mental health crises that we’re not able to get to people fast enough," Ozanne said.  

Expanding the Community Restorative Court received almost universal support as a top priority of work group members. The restorative justice pilot in south Madison allows young, typically low-level offenders to avoid jail time and a criminal record by taking responsibility for offenses through community service and financial restitution.

“That’s significant because in my view, in order to really address the disproportionate number of people of color in the system, you have to keep them out of the traditional judicial system,” Rusk said. “So if young people that have difficulty can go in a different direction, that is critical for the future.”

The work group’s analysis of current adult and juvenile diversion programs closely align with recommendations released last year on jail confinement alternatives, length of stay and concerns related to inmates with mental health issues.

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“(They) fit beautifully with the recommendations that were made last summer and make perfect sense,” Rusk said.

Colleen Clark, the county’s equity and criminal justice council coordinator, said several people advocated for funding expansion of the community court at a budget hearing last week.

“We need to do criminal justice in a different way if we expect some different results,” Clark said.

The PP&J Committee will review the work group recommendations at its Tuesday meeting at 5:15 p.m. in Room 357 of the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.