Criminal Justice

Widow of Slain Police Officer Thinks Sending Fewer People to Jail Could Have Saved Her Husband's Life

Dionne Wilson joined Sen. Rand Paul and a bipartisan roster of lawmakers and advocates at yesterday's "Fair Justice" summit in D.C.

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Yesterday's Fair Justice summit in Washington, D.C., featured a bipartisan, high-profile roster of lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates, including Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ken.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, and activist/pundit Van Jones. But it was a woman named Dionne Wilson, speaking about the death of her police officer husband, who seemed to steal the show. 

Wilson, now a program associate at Californians for Safety and Justice, was married to Dan Niemi, a San Leandro police officer who was shot and killed while on duty in 2005. Wilson says that at the time, she was a conservative who believed in how the U.S. criminal justice system worked. But although her husband's killer was caught and convicted—he's now awaiting the death sentence (a fact which Wilson says brings her no joy now, though she pushed for it during his sentencing)—coming to terms with Niemi's death eventually changed Wilson's perspective. "I was really wrong about how our system works," she told the crowd yesterday.

The then-23-year-old who shot her husband, Irving Ramirez, had been in and out of incarceration since he was young, mostly for drug charges such as meth possession. When Niemi showed up about a noise complaint, Ramirez was on probation—and carrying two handguns and some drugs; he shot her husband because he didn't want to go back to jail.

At first wondering why he was ever let out in the first place, Wilson now wonders why he had to go in. "I can't help but think how my life would be different, and my children's lives would be different… had we passed Proposition 47 years before," she said, referring to the California ballot measure passed in November 2014 that reduced most "nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes" from felonies to misdemeanors.

"I don't think that anyone can tell me that had we invested in people over prisons, my husband wouldn't be here today." 

@cut_50/Twitter

Rather than talk about prisoner reentry—how to help those who've spent time in jail or prison reacclimate to the world outside—Wilson said she wants to talk about "no entry," i.e., "that people never enter the system, that we stop feeding this system of mass incarceration. Stop punishing people for self-medicating trauma with drugs and alcohol, stop punishing people for mental illness." Theses policies don't work, Wilson concluded. "The promise of public safety has not helped." 

Other speakers at the summit—which was organized by the Center for American Progress, Koch Industries, and American Civil Liberties Union-backed Coalition for Public Safety—came to similar conclusions, albeit based on less personal circumstances. "We're spending more, getting less, and destroying communities in the process," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.).

"Crime and incarceration rates can fall together," said Sen. Leahy in a tirade against mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. "I consider ending mandatory minimums … a moral issue," the senator said yesterday. (Though, like Paul, Leahy voted for new mandatory minimums for web publishers as part of the recent human trafficking bill.) "We have to do better. … Mandatory minimums are a problem Congress created and only Congress can fix." 

Leahy complained that, "for three decades, Congress turned to mandatory minimum sentences to address every public safety concern." It hasn't helped. "We lost the war on drugs… let's admit it," said Leahy, who is ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last year, the committee seemed poised to come together on the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would have cut mandatory minimums in half for some drug crimes and made the reduced crack penalties passed in 2010 retroactive. But "it was blocked by a handful of senators because they were afraid they wouldn't be seen as tough on crime." 

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) also complained about the tough-on-crime imperative and spineless lawmakers. We've passed about one new criminal law per week for the past 30 years, many of which lack a mens rea requirement, said Scott. "No good politician has ever voted against a crime bill named after somebody," though these generally contain the worst sort of reactionary policies. 

So have we really reached a criminal justice reform tipping point? Sen. Paul thinks the House "is more open than the Senate" to criminal justice reform efforts, but does see some areas where reform is realistic right now. These include passing a civil asset forfeiture reform measure and legislation to start testing the effect of police officers wearing body cameras. 

NEXT: A.M. Links: Obama Plans More Executive Action on Immigration, Bill Cosby Forced to Testify, Scott Walker Says U.S. 'Should Not Be the World's Policeman'

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  1. s/less/fewer

    /pedant

      1. Your welcome, isn’t.

    1. Copy editor needed on Aisle 3!

    2. Thanks for saving me the trouble.

    3. She reads comments!

      *swoon*

      I am so easy.

      1. I like to think of myself as “Easy, but never cheap”.

    4. Our police, prosecutors, judges, politicians, and all other people employed by this criminal injustice system, will never allow a decrease in the jail and prison population. They all benefit financially by keeping it the way it is. In fact, we will probably see a big increase in the prison and jail population over the next several years. We are governed by complete assholes!

  2. “I can’t help but think how my life would be different, and my children’s lives would be different… “

    She’s throwing soccer moms under the bus here. Her husband was enforcing a policy to keep their little preciouses from being pushed drugs on the playgrounds!

  3. “No good politician has ever voted against a crime bill named after somebody,” though these generally contain the worst sort of reactionary policies.

    If something called Dan’s Law was pushed to repeal all federal drug laws, I say vote for it. (Although for all legislation crafted as a response to a single tragedy, I suggest a 90 day waiting period before it can be put to the vote.)

    1. My scheme for legislatures is that any legislator can propose a bill, and every legislator gets to approve it or not. At the end of a 30 day review period, if a majority of legislators have approved it, it passes that chamber. There are no disapproval votes, because the majority is of legislators, not votes. Any changes to the bill, by the author, during that review period restart the review period. No committees to get in the way, although parties can always hold their own off-site meetings and provide their own party discipline.

      Once a bill has passed all chambers and becomes law, each chamber maintains a list of current legislators who want to repeal a law. If any chamber ever gets a majority of legislators signed up in opposition, the law is immediately repealed. Reenactment requires starting over again from scratch.

      And maybe have some provision that if any bill gets 90% approval before the 30 day review period is over, it passes that chamber immediately; and if it passes all chambers thusly, it becomes law immediately, but only as long as it maintains that 90% approval in each chamber.

      1. My scheme, borrowed from Heinlein, is quite simple. Require 2/3 to pass a bill, and 1/3 to repeal a bill. That way is must require a lot of support to become law, and it must keep that support to remain law.

        1. My scheme is a combination of term limits and sunset provisions, so that every law or regulation has to regularly be voted on by different legislators. Also, if you are voting yea, you have to read the bill aloud in its entirety at the time of the vote. Any shortcut, omission or mistake counts as a nay vote.

          1. I like the encouragement of brevity.

          2. I love all these schemes. But this is all just masturbation. Only those in Congress can change how Congress works. Unless of course we can pass a Constitutional amendment. But we need 3/4 of the states.
            So it still comes down to getting the right Top Men in place.

            Apparently its Tops all the way down. (Oh that poor bottom dude!)

            1. You’ve just described collectivism in one simple phrase. Like Lake Woebegone (sp?) where all the kids are above average.

            2. One plain little turtle named Mack.

        2. The problem with your scheme is that it still involves politicians making up new laws.

  4. But, but, but, but Kochtopus. Evil.
    Oh the cognitive dissonance. The pain! The pain!

  5. Hmmm. Mr. Irving Ramirez didn’t want to go back to prison, so he shot a cop and now he’s going to sit in prison for a long time thinking about the day the executioner shows up. And then he gets killed.

    Smart guy.

  6. I voted for Prop 47 in 2014 which passed and became law here in the People’s Republic. It reduced drug possession to a misdemeanor and some property crimes as well. I liked the part about reducing the penalties for drug possession but did not like the reduction for property crimes. The upswing has been a significant increase in property crime here in SF and in LA. SF was already a hospitable place to be a drug addict, loonball or thief and is now even more so. I am in the Tenderloin a lot for work and it was already a lowlife fiesta but has become even more so. I was working on a gate in front of a church there a few months back and I had, no exaggeration, 14 people smoking crack within spitting distance. I

    I called the cops a while back because some bum had literally sprayed diarrhea all over someone’s front door next to the door I was working on. He could have walked twenty feet and gone in the bushes but chose not to. The cop who came out asked me what was she supposed to do with him. She couldn’t bring him in and giving him a citation was totally worthless. The city is his toilet.

    1. The cop who came out asked me what was she supposed to do with him.

      She must have been new. I guess she hadn’t learned that she’s supposed to yell “FURTIVE MOVEMENT!”and then empty a full mag into the bum. Clearly MORE TRAINING is needed. /sarc

    2. Give him a bottle of Kaopectate?

  7. So have we really reached a criminal justice reform tipping point?

    I dunno. What does Trump think? And should we believe what he says about it, or the opposite?

    I CAN’T MAKE A DECISION UNTIL SOMEONE TELLS ME WHAT TO THINK ABOUT WHAT TRUMP THINKS!!

  8. I didnt want to get a traffic ticket. So I shot the bum . So of course the real question is why are there traffic tickets, if only we had the common sense to eliminate them …..

    1. Well, when the speed limits and other traffic laws were enacted, it was with the express understanding that they were to be civil violations, and not criminal. So, in theory (laughs) no one should ever face prosecution for a moving violation.
      Next question?

  9. “No good politician has ever voted against a crime bill named after somebody”

    Is that only because there is no such beast as a “good politician”?

    1. hah only in part. also, no politician has ever voted against a crime bill named after somebody.

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