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Prop. 47: State voters to decide on reduced prison sentences
October 15th, 2014
By Christina Gray

In the nearly 15-year course of mourning the death of her police officer husband in the line of duty and waiting for his young killer’s conviction, Dionne Wilson of Morgan Hill has been transformed from embittered crime victim to activist for criminal justice policy reform.

“During the trial I wanted his head on a stick,” Wilson said in a phone call with Catholic San Francisco on Oct. 9, less than a month before Californians vote on Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative. The anger and grief following her husband’s murder didn’t blind her, however, from eventually seeing what she called a “broken” criminal justice system focused on “punishment not rehabilitation.”

“The ‘R’ in the CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) is a joke,” said Wilson, whose husband Nels “Dan” Niemi, a San Leandro police officer, was fatally shot in 2005 while investigating a disturbance. “There is no rehabilitation going on in prisons except in programs operating outside the prison.”

After the long and liberating process of forgiving her husband’s killer, Wilson began volunteering for one such program, San Rafael’s Insight Prison Project, and now sits on its board. She travels from her South Bay home each Saturday to facilitate the IPP’s Victim Offender Education Group at San Quentin State Prison, where it helps prisoners develop insight into the circumstances of their lives and the choices that led them to prison. Like most IPP staff and volunteers, she is a vocal proponent of Proposition 47.

Proposition 47, which voters will decide Nov. 4, would reduce sentences in California for a handful of petty crimes such as drug possession and some types of thefts like shoplifting currently charged as misdemeanors or felonies. Grand theft, receipt of stolen property, forgery, fraud, bad-check writing not exceeding $950 and personal use of illegal drugs are examples of felony crimes that would be reduced.

The measure also would also open a three-year window during which inmates serving felony sentences could apply for sentence reduction. Supporters say the felony reduction would reduce the barriers to jobs, housing, vocational training and other needs that many with sentences for low-level, nonviolent crimes face after release.

A third impact of the measure would be to redirect savings resulting from a lower prison population to substance abuse, mental health and re-entry support programs.

Proponents say the initiative would free up prison costs associated with the incarceration of low-level, non-violent criminals but keep rapists, murderers and child molesters locked up.

The savings realized from charging some crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies would be applied to the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund. About 65 percent of the $150 million to $250 million expected annual savings will go to substance abuse and mental health programs, with 25 percent going to K-12 programs for at-risk youth and 10 percent to victim support services.

“This is not new money but simply redirected corrections funds,” Wilson said.

Wilson said that California spent $62,300 last year for each state prisoner but only $9,100 per K-12 student. “We’ve built 22 prisons and only one university since 1980,” she said.

But opponents, including the California District Attorneys Association and the California Police Chiefs Association, say the initiative would release dangerous inmates to the general public by reclassifying crimes.

“We all agree that at some level criminals must face meaningful consequences for violating the law,” police chiefs’ association president Christopher Boyd said. “Prop. 47 turns that idea on its head. The penalties for serious crimes will be reduced and felons currently in prison will be entitled to resentencing to county jail or outright release.”

Supporters include crime victims’ and civil liberties groups and religious organizations, including the California Catholic Conference of Bishops.

“… The common good requires a safe, nourishing environment in which all members of society can flourish,” conference president Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto said in delivering the bishops’ endorsement Sept. 9. “It also demands that those who have broken society’s trust are not considered lost but – while paying the price for their actions – are given an opportunity to once more become contributing members of society.”

Bishop Soto said, “Distilling complex realities to ‘soft’ or ‘tough’ on crime slogans ignores the fact that we are dealing with real human lives, with complicated social dynamics and with the need to balance accountability, justice and fairness in our justice system. Prisons do not make good schools or good mental health programs. Proposition 47 can help us do better than that.”

The wrong classification of certain crimes has led to massive sentencing and incarceration,” said Julio Escobar, director of restorative justice ministry for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

“People incarcerated for petty crimes who may have more serious felonies on their records, may indeed request resentencing under the measure, be heard by a judge and be sentenced to terms shorter than those they are currently serving,” Escobar said. “Some could be released earlier than they might otherwise. But distinct from three-strikers who petitioned for and won reduction of life terms, these are people serving shorter terms who are soon to be released anyway, just as people imprisoned for low-level felonies always do and always have done. They will be subject to parole supervision. The difference here is not that formerly incarcerated people will return to their neighborhoods; it is that resources will be available to lessen their chances of committing new crimes.”

From October 17, 2014 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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