Restoring justice with Ismael Ozanne, Dane County district attorney

Q&A with the Dane County District Attorney
Restoring justice with Ismael Ozanne, Dane County district attorney

The Madison Police Department was criticized last year for a highly publicized case involving Genele Laird, an 18-year-old African American woman whose arrest at East Towne Mall by white officers was captured on a video that went viral.

Laird was eventually enrolled in Dane County’s Community Restorative Court program and will not face criminal charges upon successfully completing the program. The restorative court was launched as a pilot program in south Madison in June 2015, but will expand countywide after recently receiving a $50,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

According to the program website, offenders ages 17-25 in Madison who are referred to the program “appear before a group made up of community members to ensure accountability, determine alternative sanctions and to help repair the harm done to the victim of the crime.”

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne answered questions about the program via email. Here is an edited excerpt.

Restoring justice with Ismael Ozanne, Dane County district attorney

Q&A with Ismael Ozanne, Dane County district attorney

What are the goals of restorative justice?

The goals of restorative justice are to allow an offender to accept responsibility, repair the harm caused and reduce recidivism, while at the same time empowering victims and the community by allowing them to have a greater part in the process and having a stronger voice as to what is needed to repair the harm. I believe the impact is incredible and the biggest benefit will be the strengthening of the community’s relationship with law enforcement.

One of the keys seems to be that offenders and victims (or their representatives) are required to meet and speak in a circle. Does that increase empathy for all concerned?

Many may see restorative justice as a free pass, but I believe it is anything but a free pass. The offender has to face the harm they caused. They see the true impact on the victim and the community. They have to own what they have done. This will help create empathy which is likely the most powerful weapon we have against recidivism.

Can you talk about your decision to refer Genele Laird to the program? Wasn’t she an unusual candidate because she faced potential felonies and her case wasn’t specific to south Madison?

Ms. Laird’s case is still open, and as such, I am ethically bound to not speak about the details at this time. I can tell you the DA’s office was not bound to the geographic restrictions of the pilot area. I have made decisions to refer cases which I believed were appropriate for the Community Restorative Court based on the age of the offender, the agreement and willingness of the victims in the case to have the offender considered for alternative justice, the offender’s acceptance of responsibility for their actions and a desire by the offender to repair the harm caused.

How has the program progressed?

I believe the Community Restorative Court is moving forward and has had some very promising initial results. I believe restorative justice can really benefit victims by giving them a stronger voice and role in the outcome. Offenders have to face the harm they have created, and this is a real opportunity to foster empathy, which can truly change behavior. I am hopeful this process will strengthen our communities as well as build a stronger relationship with law enforcement, which will make us all safer.