What that means will be the question of the next four years, but Ms. Harris represents the last best hope for real reform in the criminal justice in California – a system bogged down with an expensive and over-capacity prison system, recidivism and ridiculous sentences for minor crimes.
If Mr. Cooley represented law enforcement and the status quo, as embodied by his watching party of various police agencies and the DA’s Office at the UC Davis debate, Ms. Harris represents a chance at reform. This is despite that fact that her own record in San Francisco is mixed at best, as she has had her own problems with failing to disclose exculpatory evidence and crime lab problems.
On Monday, she spoke of change and reform.
Attorney General Harris stressed in her inaugural address that she will seek innovative new approaches in tackling the state’s toughest problems.
“It is often said that a good prosecutor wins convictions. But a great prosecutor has convictions. In the coming four years, and in the continuing work of the Attorney General’s Office, we are going to do whatever it takes in the cause of protecting and defending the lives and livelihoods of all Californians, by moving beyond the status quo,” Ms. Harris said. “To do this, we are going to need to get smart on crime – tougher and smarter – about making California the undisputed national leader in innovation in crime fighting.”
In her office’s first official press release, it said that Ms. Harris “plans to focus on reducing recidivism and on reforming the state’s revolving door prison system. A major priority of her office will be to lead a renewed collaborative effort against transnational gangs and organized crime.”
Moreover, “In her role representing the interests of the people of California, Harris is deeply committed to protecting consumers from mortgage fraud and other scams, as well as to preserving the state’s natural resources.”
In her inaugural remarks, she said, “we affirm the pricinple that every Californian matters.”
She stated, “It’s important to remember our history. This wasn’t always the case. We didn’t always have Lady Justice balancing the scales with her blindfold and sword in hand. In the early days of common law, there was no public prosecutor. People had to fend for themselves. Lone individuals were forced to press charges and present cases on their own, often compelled to weigh the balance of a family’s livelihood against the immediate moral necessity of justice.”
“It goes without saying: This was an especially oppressive system for everyday working people – a system that ultimately and tragically led many victims to seek justice outside of the law.”
She then evoked Earl Warren, who is best known as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court and prior to that as California’s Governor. But his career started as a prosecutor first, in Alameda County as a DA for 14 years, and then as Attorney General.
She said, “Earl Warren never forgot he was a prosecutor first and, by training, that meant the law stands for everyone.”
As she stated, “It’s often said that a good prosecutor wins convictions. But a great prosecutor has convictions.” She continued, “Chief Justice Warren put it this way: ‘Everything I did in my life that was worthwhile, I caught hell for.’ ”
Attorney General Harris spoke to what she called the false dichotomy of painting some as tough while others were labeled soft.
“In too many cases, we’ve allowed politicians to sound tough without insisting on policies that are truly tough and sound. We’ve accepted a fundamental misdiagnosis of the problem: Treating crime as a monolith with a one-size-fits-all solution, instead of recognizing that our approach in the overwhelming majority of non-violent offenders is failing us badly,” she said.
“Being tough and smart means recognizing that we have a long-term imbalance in our criminal justice system in California, which we ignore at our own peril. When an appalling 70 percent of those released from our overburdened correctional system reappear in the revolving door within three years; when we spend twice as much on prisons as we invest in colleges and universities; and when organized violent criminal gangs continue to present an expanding threat across borders and prison walls…It is time to recognize the need for some drastic repair,” Ms. Harris continued.
In her speech, Kamala Harris merged different themes together, speaking of the threat of recidivism, the lack of investment in education and the criminal threat.
She also laid out her theme, focusing on key policy areas.
“We are going to use these working groups to zero in on longstanding issues in key areas, from gang crime to reducing truancy to protecting our environment to combating mortgage fraud and identity theft,” Kamala Harris said.
Gangs were a theme that pervaded the speech, as well.
She began, “So let it be clear to anyone who would menace this state with violence – to the gangs that plague our streets, to the criminals who traffic women and children, to all those who prey on the weak and the vulnerable. Justice will be swift and certain in the State of California.”
She continued, “As Attorney General, I am going to lead a renewed collaborative effort against gangs and organized crime. Put simply, organized criminal gangs represent the number one public safety challenge facing California, and collaborating with our federal and local law enforcement partners to fight the gang problem will be a major focus of our work.
“The evidence is all around us. We are home to the nation’s gang capital. Los Angeles alone has 400 separate gangs and an estimated 39,000 members. In recent years, our prisons have increasingly come under gang domination. And with a literal drug war raging in Mexico, we are witnessing an insidious growth in the influence of transnational gangs.
“These gangs are as ruthless as they are toxic, committing a broad array of crimes – from drug dealing to gun violence to premeditated murder. They wreak violence and chaos wherever they operate, and they wield their power through brutal intimidation – threatening whole communities that suffer both as witness and victim to their crimes.”
“Transnational gangs have gained an unacceptable toehold in California, and I am looking forward to a working collaboration with the US Department of Justice and the Attorneys General of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas to build a more comprehensive and effective regional strategy,” Ms. Harris continued.
So what does all of this mean? It is hard to know. As I have noted in the past, Ms. Harris is an interesting figure. At times she appears to speak like an unabashed liberal, but at other times she is clearly a prosecutor. Where these different goals and values merge will determine the course that she lays out in her tenure as Attorney General.
—David M. Greenwald reporting