Soapbox

California’s approach to crime is costly and shortchanges victims

Pedro Ortiz, left, and Melissa Garibay of Stockton comfort each other near a photo of Garibay’s murdered brother, Sergio, during a rally for crime victims at the state Capitol last April.
Pedro Ortiz, left, and Melissa Garibay of Stockton comfort each other near a photo of Garibay’s murdered brother, Sergio, during a rally for crime victims at the state Capitol last April. Sacramento Bee file

In 2005, I did not think much about National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, which started Sunday, or about criminal justice policies. My husband was a police officer in San Leandro, and I thought we should lock up the bad guys and throw away the key.

All that changed on July 25 of that year. At 1 a.m., I heard that knock that every police spouse dreads. As I stood frozen in my doorway, three close friends told me what I already knew: Dan was gone.

Responding to a minor disturbance outside an apartment complex, Dan spoke with some young, very intoxicated men. One man, who had been in jail for drugs and feared a return trip, drew his gun and shot Dan. The man was caught, convicted and received the death penalty. But the healing I expected did not come. I was angry, depressed and broken.

As a police widow, I had all the support you could want: Friends brought me food, Dan’s colleagues helped me navigate the justice system and everyone always saw me as a victim. Without this support, I would not have made it.

However, the entire experience led me to view the system itself as broken. I learned that California spends $10 billion per year to sustain a system that is long on punishment and short on rehabilitation. Our recidivism rate is an embarrassment: 61 percent of people leaving prison return within three years.

This endless cycle of incarceration is largely driven by mental health and drug addiction issues that continue to be punished instead of healed. This is exactly what happened with the man who shot my husband.

The current approach is not working; it’s expensive and not making us safer. This realization led me to work with Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a statewide network whose members were in Sacramento on Monday and Tuesday to call for new priorities that better aid survivors.

For example, the support I received after Dan’s death is the exception, not the rule. After meeting with survivors, I realize that the justice system does not respond to victims equally. Equally troubling is that a vast majority of crime survivors don’t know about, or have access to, services for victims.

That’s why I was proud to be part of an effort that won new funding for trauma recovery centers, which help victims with counseling and navigating the justice and compensation process. There are currently only three centers, two in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco. More are badly needed – including in Sacramento. That’s why I look forward to the additional funds for trauma recovery centers expected from Proposition 47, which voters passed in November.

It’s inspiring to see the diverse array of survivors coming together to call for new investments and priorities. In 2005, I did not think much about criminal justice policy or victims’ rights, but now I see the two as inextricably linked.

Dionne Wilson of Sacramento is an advocate with Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice.

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