MADISON, Wis. - A program quietly started in the Dane County District Attorney's Office last fall is now an issue in the race for attorney general.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne is spearheading the program and also running for attorney general.
A report from the office on a Racial Justice Improvement Project website details the new program to keep some child abuse cases out of courtrooms. The idea is for parents referred to the DA's office for certain child abuse charges to accept responsibility for their actions and go into an education program rather than jail or probation.
"These parents that we can work with are not bad people," Ozanne said of the initiative. "They are good parents, they want the best for their children. What we have to recognize is we have to work within different cultures and different beliefs in order to affect positive change and protect kids."
A stated goal of the program in the report is "reducing criminal convictions by recognizing corporal punishment as a culturally acceptable form of discipline." Ozanne said many of those parents are minorities and that more than half of child abuse cases sent to him are people of color. The program now has 20 people in it and is the first of its kind in the nation.
But the other candidates for attorney general don't see the program the same way Ozanne does.
Jefferson County DA Susan Happ, a Democrat, said in a statement, "I understand there may be cultural differences, but I do not condone child abuse under any circumstances."
Democratic Rep. Jon Richards said in a statement, "When it comes to child abuse, protecting kids should be the one and only priority."
Waukesha County DA Brad Schimel, a Republican, said in a statement, "The Dane County District Attorney is forgetting who the victims are, and he should not bend over backward to excuse conduct that goes further than the law allows."
Ozanne refutes that idea, saying that deferred prosecution is right in some cases and has proven successful in other areas.
"I think it's the right thing to do for us and for children, period, and that's what we're doing," Ozanne said. "I did not make it a campaign issue."
Ozanne said the county has grant funds to track the success of the program.
A spokeswoman for Dane County Executive Joe Parisi told said he was supportive of the program.
The program manager for the Safe Harbor program said it would help a small subset of people who don't intend to harm children by educating them on parenting.
Ozanne said Dane County will host a conference on the issue on June 11.
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