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Wisconsin candidate defends program offering classes to parents accused of spanking children

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MILWAUKEE — A Democratic candidate for state attorney general on Wednesday defended a Dane County program in which parents accused of disciplining their children too harshly could avoid abuse charges by taking parenting classes, a policy that drew skeptical reactions from his campaign rivals.

Ismael Ozanne, the Dane County district attorney, said the program keeps children safe while helping adults become better parents. He said it replaces a heavy-handed approach with parental assistance and education, which he called an innovative solution that still holds child abusers accountable.

"With the amount of supervision they're under, this is not a freebie," he told a panel of reporters at the Milwaukee Press Club. "They're not getting off."

The program gives parents who meet certain requirements the chance to avoid child-abuse charges. Instead they might have to take intensive parenting classes, go to counseling and perform community service, Ozanne said.

Parents convicted of first-offense child abuse typically get probation or a short jail term, but then return to their same habits, campaign spokesman Stan Davis said. Instead, by teaching them how to discipline their children without corporal punishment, the cycle of violence can end, he added.

To qualify for the program parents must admit their guilt, show remorse and cooperate with law enforcement.

Brad Schimel, the Waukesha County district attorney and the only Republican running for attorney general, questioned whether Ozanne's program truly does enough to protect abused children.

"The Dane County District Attorney is forgetting who the victims are and he should not bend over backwards to excuse conduct that goes further than the law allows," Schimel said in a statement.

Two other Democrats are also in the race. State Rep. Jon Richards, said that in cases of child abuse, "protecting kids should be the one and only priority." And Susan Happ, the Jefferson County district attorney, said policies that defer prosecution and provide alternatives to incarceration should be applied very carefully.

Ozanne, Richards and Happ will square off in an August primary. The winner will face Schimel in the November general election.

The current attorney general, Republican J.B. Van Hollen, isn't seeking re-election.

Ozanne spokesman Davis said the corporal-punishment program applies to parents whose spankings leave a mark, such as one left by a switch, belt, wire hanger or extension cord. Parents who spank their children on the buttocks with a bare hand would never even get referred to police, he said, and those who commit serious abuse would be prosecuted, he said.

Ozanne cited the case of a Madison girl whose parents were accused of keeping her locked in the basement and starving her until the 15-year-old weighed just 68 pounds. Ozanne prosecuted those parents and won convictions, he noted.

A number of other legal issues were raised during the hour-long discussion at the Press Club.

For example, Ozanne was asked whether he would defend the state's ban on same-sex marriage, or a law that requires that abortion providers have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

He said he would defend neither. He said marriage equality was an issue of fairness, and abortion restrictions infringe on a woman's right to choose.

He wasn't as definite on a question about whether he'd defend Act 10, the 2011 law championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker that effectively did away with most union rights for teachers and other public workers.

Ozanne emphasized that he had filed a lawsuit in the case, alleging that lawmakers violated Wisconsin's open-records law during the run-up to the law's passage. But if called upon as attorney general to defend the law, he said he'd have to review whether the case provided a good-faith legal basis to challenge the law.


Online:

Ismael Ozanne campaign: http://www.iozanne.com

Jon Richards campaign: http://www.jonforwisconsin.com

Susan Happ campaign: http://www.susanhappforwisconsin.com

Brad Schimel campaign: http://bradschimel.com


Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde@ap.org.

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