San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris narrowly defeated Steve Cooley, the District Attorney of LA County, in last month's election. She'll be the first woman attorney general of California and the first from Asian American and African American parents, respectively a professor of economics and a doctor. A native of Berkeley, she became deputy district attorney in Alameda County starting in 1990. She moved to San Francisco, where she defeated incumbent District Attorney Terence Hallinan in 2003, and was re-elected without opposition four years later.
KCRW's Warren Olney interviewed Harris about her stances on police reform and the future of California. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
KCRW: You won by less than a percentage point. Are you concerned that Californians, particularly those in Los Angeles, don't really know what you stand for?
Kamala Harris: "I won by over 70,000 votes. The most important thing is ... the voters spoke about what they want in the next attorney general in California, and I'm humbled that I've been chosen. ... The focus for me will be ... on a number of issues that I think require some leadership that is focused on innovation and not blind adherence to tradition. And so that relates to, for example, what we can and should do to reform the criminal justice system in California, which is clearly broken.
When we say that we have the highest recidivism rate in the country, which means that we have the highest numbers of known offenders that reoffend, in fact 70% of those who go to state prison reoffend within three years of their release. It's an extremely expensive situation in terms of what it costs, not only our public safety, but diminishing public resources in a state that is on the verge of bankruptcy. So that's one area of focus for me.
... Another area of focus for me is what we can do to deal with something that has gone without consequences in many cases ... and that relates specifically to mortgages and foreclosures. We have people across the state, good hard-working people who have been doing everything they were supposed to do to live the American dream. And now they're finding they're out of work. And there are predators who have come in, in the form of brokers, to financial institutions [to sweep up their] few remaining assets and their dignity. And another crime that for the most part has gone without consequence. Because of the reality of it, and perhaps a mundane fact of it, is that when we're talking about this level of financial fraud, it's not the Bernie Madoff kind of case. It's instead someone who has lost their home that may have been valued at $150,000. But there are a lot of people who are in the same situation, and they deserve to have a voice.
So those are some areas of focus. Another ... is the adoption of technology by law enforcement. Local law enforcement needs more resources to do its job. And I want to be an attorney general that can bring those resources to local law enforcement. Again, just realizing that we have technology now that allows us to communicate more effectively, more efficiently, and faster.
Communication is one of the strongest tools law enforcement has in our quest to catch the bad guy and make sure that communities are safe.
Those are some areas of focus that we've been talking about over the last few years, and I believe are very important as we go forward. Also go forward in what I think is the promise of California, which is that we are going to be committed to innovation and to be the place where change occurs, and where we set models of how we can be better.”
KCRW: Your transition team includes Bill Bratton, the former chief of police in Los Angeles; Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney; and two former secretaries of Ssate, Warren Christopher and George Shultz. What are they doing?
Kamala Harris: “I know each of them and have worked with them on one level or another professionally. ... I think the significance of those leaders in being part of this transition is to also highlight a point that I often make because I believe it to be true, which is that these issues are mostly nonpartisan. They're not even bipartisan. ... We cannot afford to just be mired in ideology. And instead we should just focus on what are practical outcomes and solutions.
As a career prosecutor, I have never known a robber who approaches a victim and ask what is their political affiliation.
When we talk about what we need to do to fix America's prison system crisis, and in particular highlighted in California, I would suggest to you that focusing on reentering former offenders, and by getting them education and job training and parenting skills is not an ideological perspective. It's a practical perspective. Because if we don't do that, they are going to reoffend and cost us so much more money. On an annual basis, for example, you can look at what we pay into the California's criminal justice system, and it varies and ranges from about $10-25 billion a year in a system that is broken.
Reentry initiatives are far less expensive, and they actually improve public safety, improve workforce development, and improve what we want in terms of stopping unhealthy cycles in certain communities."
KCRW: Listeners wanted to know about your opposition to the death penalty — based on what it costs to deal with the whole appeals process, as opposed to what it costs for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Kamala Harris: “My position on the death penalty, which is that I am personally opposed to the death penalty, is the same as the last nine attorneys general of California, including the current one. But I think you'll find the work of that office has remained the same, regardless of the personal perspective that anyone has had.”
KCRW: You have been on The Oprah Show. Newsweek says you're one of the 20 most powerful women in the country. The New York Times said last year that you were on the list of 17 women most likely to be president of the United States. How are you going to handle the national attention?
Kamala Harris: “I'm focused on the work, and that's what I’m going to pay attention to. I'm very excited about this ability to have an impact on initiatives we've been discussing. I'm very excited about the role the attorney general can play. That is, the work that is statutory and a constitutional obligation of the office. But also the work that comes with the bully pulpit to highlight discussions that are about reform and about innovation.
I'm very excited about the power ... the office can also provide in terms of the power to convene on issues such as reentry. Bringing together nonprofits, foundations, academics, and law enforcement leaders. There's so much exciting work that we can do.
On the issue of technology for example ... when I was elected D.A. of San Francisco in 2004, two-thirds of my lawyers did not have email. And this is a world class city that is the first cousin of Silicon Valley.
The reality of it is that we are operating with extremely obsolete systems of government, and in particular in law enforcement. And to be able, in any way, to provide leadership around the adoption of technology, I believe will have a huge impact on many lives for many reasons. One because we will have a government more effective and efficient
But also one of the crimes that is most prevalent and going absolutely without consequence is the crime of identity theft, which is a crime that is committed because of the offender's understanding of technologies and the ways to use them that will manipulate and can deprive other people of their value and their identity. But we don't have the infrastructure.”
KCRW: How do you respond when people say that you're on a ladder or that you're on your way?
Kamala Harris: “I'll give you context. ... My parents met at University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s when they were actively involved in the civil rights movement. And so I grew up ... and was born in Oakland. And then I studied at UC Hastings. I started at the Alameda County's DA office. One of the reasons I wanted to go there is it was known for being one of the best in the country, in large part because years before, Earl Warren headed that office. Well, my connection to Earl Warren is that.
And also I was part of ... a second class of integrated Berkeley public schools. And that integration of course came about almost a decade after Brown vs. Board of Education was decided, which was authored by Earl Warren. And so the symmetry of that is something I've always been very proud of, including the fact that it also highlights another important experience I've had professionally, which is that we cannot accept false choices. There's a very direct connection between an issue like public education and an issue like public safety. And I look at Earl Warren’s career and see all of all of that. And I feel a sense of pride about that.
... Pat Brown also leaves a legacy of being very committed to using the power of the prosecutor in a way that is just, and is about a commitment to innovation and also about a commitment to civil rights. So I feel a sense of connection in terms of inspiration, if nothing else, to those two former attorneys general and who each were also elected DAs before that.”
KCRW: You are putting yourself in elite company. Do you want to move on from being attorney general?
Kamala Harris: “I want to move into the office of attorney general on January 3.”
KCRW: People are very interested to know more about what you mean by reentry, and how you're going to do something that might ultimately reduce the extraordinary cost of California's prison system.
Kamala Harris: “Reentry is a relatively new criminal justice concept. And it is about a focus on the reentering [of] former offenders. For example, the average prison sentence in California is only 24 months. So that tells us two things about what's going on in the prison system in California and in our criminal justice system by extension.
One, the average person being sentenced is not being sentenced for that most atrocious, horrible, violent crime that we see on television. ... Because 24 months is not bad. That's going to be 10-15-25 to life. So the average prisoner being sentenced is not being sentenced for that horrendous violent crime.
But the second piece of it is that after the 24 month average, they're all coming out. And we have no meaningful criminal justice policy for dealing with that. So we release them. Within three years of their release, seven out of 10 reoffend. And we process them through again at extremely high cost.”
KCRW: Parole isn’t doing the job?
Kamala Harris: “It's not just about parole. It's about systems reform. Certainly parole and probation as links in the chain of the criminal justice system need much more support and resources. Even parole and probation departments, where we have charged the responsibility of supervising and monitoring known offenders, it is there that we are supposed to ensure that we're knocking on their doors from time to time, to make sure they're going to that AA class, or they're going to the anger management class, or they are going to complete their GED. But if the resources aren't there to monitor someone we know is likely to reoffend, then that person will probably end up reoffending. And then we will pay a much higher cost after they've done that. ... It costs $10,000 at least every time I prosecute a felony. It cost us $35,000 a year to have someone in the county jail. It costs over $51,000 a year to have someone in the state prison. A reentry initiative like the one I created in San Francisco costs less than $5,000 per participant.”
KCRW: How confident are you that you can get the legislature, which is famous for not being able to do anything, to fundamentally reform the prison system?
Kamala Harris: “Optimism is key. ... Two years ago, knowing exactly what you're talking about needed to be done, I approached Karen Bass, then speaker, now Congresswoman. And together, she and I worked on a bill that is called the Background Track Reentry Act. And it was modeled after the reentry initiative I created in San Francisco. We took it up to Sacramento. It passed. Gov. Schwarzenegger signed it into law. And as of January of 2010, the Background Track Reentry Act of California is now in California’s Penal Code.
And so, I think there's more work that can be done, legislative in nature, to help facilitate more reentry work. But the work has started. And that's why I'm so excited about ... the service that I can hopefully provide as attorney general of California. … I think we have a lot of opportunities for everyone to say ... I'm going to put ideology aside, just fix the thing.”