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California Proposition Re-evaluates Approach To Crime


California, which once led the way in tougher punishments for crime, may now lead the way back. Twenty years ago, California passed the Three Strikes, You're Out law. This fall, a ballot measure would reduce penalties for several non-serious, nonviolent crimes like theft, forgery and drug possession. Here's NPR's Kelly McEvers.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: In 2005, Dionne Wilson was living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her two kids and her husband, Dan, a cop. One late night, she got the knock on the door.

DIONNE WILSON: They were there to tell me that Dan had been shot on a routine call, and he didn't make it.

MCEVERS: Dan had been shot seven times. In court, Dionne testified, the man convicted of her husband's killing, a man named Irving Ramirez, should burn in hell. Ramirez eventually was sentenced to death.

WILSON: Yeah, I thought, this is what everybody told me is going to bring me healing. This is what I've been waiting for, and then it didn't come.

MCEVERS: Now, this next part is going to sound weird, but it was also around this time that Dionne had a really bad cockroach problem in her garage. A friend who practiced Buddhism gave her some advice.

WILSON: Take all your roach motels, throw them away and tell them, I'm not going to kill you anymore. You're welcome to stay.

MCEVERS: She thought her friend was crazy. But she tried it. The roaches went away, and she now realizes there was a lesson in there about forgiveness. She wrote a letter to Irving Ramirez apologizing for portraying him as less than human in court. From there, Dionne joined up with a criminal justice reform group and then she became the poster woman for this new measure, Prop 47. She says a less punitive system could have made a difference to her husband's killer.

WILSON: Irving had cycled in and out of the system repeatedly since he was a teenager, and there was nothing actually done to heal the reasons that he was using drugs and alcohol regularly.

MCEVERS: The idea of Prop 47 is to reclassify certain crimes that are now felonies as misdemeanors and to use the money saved for drug and alcohol programs, education and victims' families. The most recent poll shows the measure has 62 percent support here in California, and it has a surprising backer - B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a conservative Republican. His change of heart about criminal justice was a fundraiser at the Ronald Reagan Library when a former inmate came out with a big sign.

B. WAYNE HUGHES JR.: And on one side, it said prostitute, and the women's holding it up. And she flips it over, and it says, forgiven mother.

MCEVERS: So Hughes started his own prison ministry program, and he's now donated more than $1.2 million to see that Prop 47 passes.

HUGHES JR.: When you think about the $62,000 a year that it takes to go ahead and incarcerate an adult, you can send dozens if not a hundred kids to community college or to state college for that kind of money.

MCEVERS: Supporters hope it's this kind of fiscal argument that will convince voters across the political spectrum to vote for Prop 47. But Bonnie Dumanis, the district attorney in San Diego County, says the measure is dangerous. Possession of the date rape drug could become a misdemeanor, she says. So could possession of a gun.

BONNIE DUMANIS: Possession of a gun underneath $950 would be a misdemeanor. It could not be a felony. Almost every gun we see by every criminal is under $950.

MCEVERS: She says while Prop 47 might sound like a good idea, it could have unintended consequences. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Culver City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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