Yesterday's Los Angeles Times had this notable piece about California's new Attorney General-elect, which is headlined "The time may be right for Kamala Harris; She hopes the tough economy, shifting public opinion and her savvy transition team will bolster her prison reform goals." Here are snippets from the piece:
Kamala Harris, the state's next attorney general, last week announced a transition leadership team that was a marvel in its political heft... [which] underscored Harris' intent to ... upend 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?'"...
"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."...
Politics-wise, however, elected officials and voters themselves usually recoil from reform efforts that could be painted as coddling criminals.... 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.