Murder victims’ relatives debate Prop. 47

Murder victims’ relatives debate Prop. 47


Prop-47-Homeboy-870At 11 p.m. on July 25, 2005 San Leandro police officer Nels “Dan” Niemi was called to the scene of a disturbance on Doolittle Drive. Niemi stopped Irving Ramirez, of Newark, who had spent the day drinking a bottle of Hennessy cognac to celebrate his 23rd birthday.

When Niemi turned away, Ramirez pulled out a gun, shot him in the head and pumped six more bullets into his body as he lay on the ground. Niemi, 42, left behind a wife and two children. Ramirez is on death row.

Would Niemi still be alive, and would career criminal Ramirez instead be living a productive life as a law-abiding citizen, if years earlier Ramirez had been provided drug and alcohol treatment and career counseling rather than being suspended from school and cycling in and out of jail?

Niemi’s widow, Dionne Wilson, thinks so. She told her story in support of Proposition 47 at a joint Public Safety Committee informational hearing last week.

Prop. 47 would reduce certain felony crimes to misdemeanors, resulting in fewer incarcerations and shorter sentences for many criminals. Nearly two-thirds of the several hundred millions of dollars expected to be saved by reducing the state prison and county jail population would go to mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, a quarter would go to K-12 schools and the remaining 10 percent to trauma recovery services for crime victims.

Cop family

“I want to tell you why this proposition is so important to me,” Wilson told the committee on Oct. 2. “In 2005 I was a part of a typical cop family. I was living in Milpitas with my husband and six-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son. Dan was in his third year as a police officer with San Leandro. We celebrated our favorite holiday, Fourth of July, together. Then 10 days later we celebrated my son’s 15th birthday.

“That night I got that knock on my door. Every police wife knows it can happen to her, but nobody thinks that it will. Two days before my 36th birthday I buried my husband. And so it really shattered my conception about public safety. Because I had always thought that as long as our prisons are as full as they could possibly be, that we are safe. And that’s a lie. And I was told that the death penalty verdict would bring me healing. And that was a lie.

“My life took a really, really dark turn. For the next 4-½ years I was so full of hate and vengeance I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I was ruining my own life, ignoring my children and nothing positive was coming out of what happened to my family.”

She turned her life around by joining Californians for Safety and Justice. The nonprofit describes its mission as “replac[ing] prison and justice system waste with common sense solutions that create safe neighborhoods and save public dollars.”

Wilson became a founding member of CSJ’s Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, which she said has nearly 6,000 members in California. And she signed the ballot arguments in favor of Prop. 47.


“I have met with so many different crime victims from so many different communities,” said Wilson. “And we all share the same wish. We all wish this to never, ever happen to anyone ever again. We are all committed to making changes in the system that will start to chip away at this cycle of violence that we are creating with the way our criminal justice system works right now.

“Why this is really important to me is because during the trial I learned that Irving has been cycling in and out of the system for years since he was a teenager. Substance abuse problems, alcohol problems, violence problems.

“These things kept occurring in his life, but the answer that was given to that was jail sentences. In and out of supervision with no treatment. With no safety net for his mom to get him into some kind of program at school, something to get him interested and find his passion.”

“It’s because we keep saying, ‘We don’t have the money. There’s no money for treatment, there’s no money for diversion programs.’ I just disagree. It’s the focus of where we’re putting our money that’s the problem.

“By reducing these low-level, nonviolent [felony] offenses [to misdemeanors], the savings that we’re going to realize will make it so that money is available to help people like Irving’s mom keep him on the right track, keep guns out of his hands, so this tragedy doesn’t strike another family.

“At some point we have to say to each other, ‘We cannot keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. We have to change what it is that we are doing.’ What if there was a program much like the ones that Prop. 47 would fund in Irving’s school when he was getting suspended, when he was getting kicked out of school?

“What if there was a drug or alcohol treatment program available when he was going in and out of the system? How might my life be different? I think that it would be much better for my husband to still be serving his community as a police officer in San Leandro than me sitting here today asking California to help change what we are doing.”

no on 47Victims

But not all family members of murder victims see Prop. 47 as the solution.

On Sept. 3. 1979, Harriet and Mike Salarno dropped off their 18-year-old daughter Catina Rose Salarno at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, where she was starting school to study dentistry. They never saw her alive again. That evening she was shot in the head by her ex-boyfriend, Steven Burns, with whom she had broken off a relationship that summer.

Burns was sentenced to 17 years-to-life in prison. Every few years the Salarnos have shown up at Burns’ parole hearings to urge the parole board to keep him behind bars.

In 1990, Harriet Salerno founded Crime Victims United, which has as its mission “to support and strengthen public safety, promote balance in the criminal justice system, and protect the rights of victims” by strengthening sentencing laws and creating more effective rehabilitation and re-entry programs.

“Proposition 47, the so-called Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, does everything except keep our neighborhoods safe and our schools safe,” Salarno told the committee. “The proponents of this measure have already admitted that Prop. 47 will make 10,000 felons eligible for early release.

“According to the independent analyst, the vast majority of those felons have violent criminal histories. We are talking about felons convicted of carjacking, armed robbery, bank robbery, residential burglary, kidnapping, drug trafficking, just to name a few. Persons convicted of these very serious felonies will be released onto our street if Prop. 47 passes.

“These offenders will not be placed on parole nor given access to the programs that are needed to assimilate back into society in order to break the cycle they are in. When a career criminal steals a firearm or a suspected sexual predator possesses a date-rape drug or a carjacker steals yet another vehicle, there needs to be another option besides just another misdemeanor.

“This will, of course, lead to more victims. We are one of the groups that would love to go out of business. Unfortunately, If Prop. 47 passes, we will have a long, hard, wrenching future. How anyone can say the release of 10,000 felons for serious crimes will reduce crime and make our neighborhoods and schools safe is beyond basic logic.

“We must face the reality that there are some bad people in this world. There must be serious consequences for serious crimes. We as a civil society trying to protect its people cannot simply allow them to do this over and over to our citizens without serious consequences.”


In a YouTube video, Wilson argued for providing more help for crime victims. “Most victims don’t have any help,” she said. “We want to give them psychological counseling, some trauma support so they can put their lives back together.”

But Salarno noted that 10 percent of the money – what she called “a token amount” – expected to be generated by Prop. 47 is slated for crime victims. And she argued the influx of more victims that will result from the criminal release will overburden already overloaded trauma centers.

“I can attest on behalf of all victims, if you truly want to help us, then keep these violent offenders behind bars and do not add to our numbers,” she said.

Prop. 47 received 62 percent support in a Public Policy Institute of California poll of 1,702 adults conducted in the second week of September.

In the partisan breakdown, Democrats favored the initiative 69 to 22; Republicans backed it 50 to 32; and Independents favored it 64 to 25.

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