Kamala Harris

She hopes the tough economy, shifting public opinion and her savvy transition team will bolster her prison reform goals.

By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times
December 19, 2010

Kamala Harris, the state’s next attorney general, last week announced a transition leadership team that was a marvel in its political heft: two former secretaries of State — of the country, not of California — and a host of other luminaries.

The list drew attention for its implication that Harris’ ambitions were not stunted by her nail-biter victory over Republican Steve Cooley in November. But as much as it might have hinted at her future as a candidate for an even higher office, the list also underscored Harris’ intent to accomplish something harder: upending decades of California attitudes about crime and punishment.

Along with some of the better-known names were a number of reformist police chiefs, like Los Angeles’ former leader William Bratton, San Francisco’s George Gascon and Oakland’s Anthony Batts, who in the future may serve as symbolic assurance to voters as Harris works to make the criminal justice system reform criminals rather than lock them up perpetually.

Californians have been far more ensconced in the lock-’em-up camp, of course, loading ballots with measures to extend sentences and preclude judicial flexibility. But Harris believes that she has a new and powerful ally: the foundering economy.

Harris, currently San Francisco’s district attorney, has made no secret of her desire to shake up the prison system. Nine days before the election, from the pulpit of Greater Zion Church in Compton, she mocked those who called her views “radical.”

“We need to incorporate that age-old concept of redemption into the work that we do in the criminal justice system in California,” she said, to murmurs of support from the congregants. “It is a broken system and there has to be reform…. Yes, I am radical in my belief in what we can do to improve the system. How we can change without being caught up and burdened with just a blind adherence to tradition. How we can be smart on crime and not just talk about ‘Are you soft? Are you tough?’ ”

The question should be, she told them, “Are we smart?”

“Smart on Crime” is something of a Harris franchise, the name of her 2009 book. In it, and during her campaign, Harris argued that criminal justice money is wasted on the “revolving door” that prison has become as 70% of the 120,000 convicts released annually end up being caught committing new crimes.

She believes that prison should be the punishment for serious offenders and that greater pains should be taken to prod milder offenders with education, counseling, probation and other community-based support.

“I firmly believe in and advocate accountability and consequences when you are talking about rapists and murderers and child molesters — you’ve got to lock them up,” she said. “But you’ve also got to look at the fact that crime is not monolithic.”

Policy-wise, what Harris is talking about is an extension of the statistics-based policing advocated by chiefs like Bratton and used to help drive down crime in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Her argument is that at a time when California’s budget is under siege, it makes no sense to spend tens of thousands of dollars housing prisoners who could be helped by programs that cost one-tenth the amount.

“Because of the crisis that we are facing in terms of the economy, we now have an opportunity to be very practical,” she said, noting that voters she met this year “don’t want to have a conversation about rhetoric and ideology. ”

“They want to know that we are going to fix this system.”

Politics-wise, however, elected officials and voters themselves usually recoil from reform efforts that could be painted as coddling criminals.

Harris herself is an example of how positions on crime can prove daunting. She came under withering criticism — including from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and some other Democrats — for refusing to seek the death penalty in celebrated San Francisco cases. Her anti-recidivism project in San Francisco drew scorn when The Times reported that illegal immigrants were included in the program. (Harris said during the campaign that that glitch has been addressed and that the program lowered the rate of return to prison among those enrolled.)

Her narrow victory in November, too, did not suggest mass interest in her criminal justice proposals. She won the slimmest victory in the Democratic statewide sweep, although she swamped Cooley in his home county in a demonstration of Los Angeles’ aversion to Republican candidates.

But recent polling suggests that, more than in past years, Californians may be in the mood to at least entertain changes to the system. Poll after poll has found that Californians want cuts in the prison budget, and those cuts would be entertained during the present period of lower crime rates rather than in the emotion of high-crime years.

One telling measurement is support for capital punishment, which Harris opposes on principle but has said she would back as attorney general if prosecutors favor it. Seven in 10 Californians backed the death penalty in a July Field Poll. While high, that was down from more than 80% support seen during the toughest tough-on-crime period in the 1980s.

Another sign of change came in a follow-up question. When voters were asked which sentence they personally would prefer for someone convicted of first-degree murder, 42% said life in prison without parole and 41% said the death penalty. When asked the same question in 2000, Californians preferred the death penalty 44% to 37%.

“The direction of the change is what’s newsworthy,” said Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo. “People were not as tough as they were before.”

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