California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives public talk at Stanford Law School

California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives public talk at Stanford Law School
California AG Kamala Harris (photographed by: L.A. Cicero)

Kamala Harris seemed an unlikely winner in last year’s race for California Attorney General, despite her years of experience as a prosecutor in Alameda County and as San Francisco’s District Attorney. Introducing Harris before a public talk at Stanford Law School last Thursday, law Professor Joan Petersilia recounted her dismay when watching coverage of the race.

“The headlines were unusual, with things like ‘Kamala Harris coming out for rehabilitation,’ and ‘Kamala Harris worried about mass incarceration and the impact on minority communities,’ so not the tough on crime rhetoric we’ve come to expect,” said Petersilia. “I thought, ‘She’s going to change her tune when she sees how tough this race is.'” But Harris didn’t take the bait – and she won.

“There seem to be two positions for DAs and AGs to take: tough on crime and soft on crime. I believe there’s a third way forward: smart on crime,” Harris told the audience gathered to hear about her work as chief law enforcement officer for the state and her efforts to address the state’s revolving-door prison system—a system so dysfunctional that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the prison population drastically reduced by 2013.

“We need to learn from the public health model and focus on prevention,” Harris said.

Harris achieved a number of “firsts” when she was sworn in as attorney general of California in January of this year – the state’s first African American woman and the nation’s first Indian-American to hold the job. She may also be the first attorney general to not only seek the scholarly wisdom of academics but go one step further by collaborating to establish a course to study key challenges facing the state.

“One of the first calls I made when I took office was to Joan,” said Harris, who with a shrinking budget for staff and resources was looking to data to inform her priorities and policy. She explained that in California today 70 percent of former prisoners will re-offend within three years. Rattling off examples of costs such as $10,000 to prosecute a criminal, $35,000 a year to put one in a county jail and $50,000 a year to send one to a state prison, she said it made sense to find ways to prevent first-time offenders from entering the state prison system and to focus on support to help keep previous offenders from re-offending.

The idea for a class came about when Harris made that call to Petersilia, inviting her to study the state’s recidivism problem. Petersilia had to beg off, citing her teaching commitments, but suggested that the project be made into a seminar. Harris agreed. When Realignment (AB 109) in California passed, the class narrowed in focus and also took on greater urgency: The new legislation, signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown last spring and enacted this month, shifts responsibility for certain lower-level offenders from the state to county authority in what is called “realignment.” But it does not include funding for comprehensive research into how each of California’s 58 counties will address the dramatic shift in responsibility. The class, Advanced Seminar on Criminal Law & Public Policy: A Research Practicum, which began in September, will fill some of that gap by studying one county’s efforts to implement the legislation, providing what Petersilia and Harris hope will be a model for best practices.

“Her commitment to science and scholarship is so unique for an elected official. In my 30 years of studying this area I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is so true to the truth and the data,” said Petersilia, who has immersed herself in issues related to prison recidivism and realignment for the best part of 25 years. An empiricist who was the director of the Criminal Justice Program at the RAND Corporation, her expertise is politically neutral and highly sought. She has served as a special adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, helping to reorganize adult corrections and working with the California State Legislature to implement prison and parole reform (she was standing next to him at the signing ceremony for AB 900, which authorized nearly $8 billion for prison construction and rehabilitation initiatives). She chaired Schwarzenegger’s Rehabilitation Strike Team and also was co-chair of California’s expert panel on offender rehabilitation programs. Brown also quickly sought her advice after taking office.

Many of the law students in the audience at last week’s discussion, who gathered around Harris before and after the talk in a way they might crowd a rock star, are not just any students – they are also her students, enrolled in the seminar. They listened intently as Harris shared family tidbits about growing up in Berkeley; her parents, both graduate students, active in the civil rights movement; she and her sister, Maya, now a Stanford Law School alumna, tagging along to meetings and marches. But it was the meat of the talk, the nuts and bolts about how California will enact AB 109, dramatic legislation that shifts nonviolent prisoners from state to county jails (and so reduces state prison population per the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate), that really engaged them.

One student, whose seminar project involves speaking to county prosecutors, asked how the state would address prosecutors who tried to circumvent AB 109 by pushing for stiffer jail terms, and so forcing nonviolent criminals AB 109 aims to locate in local jails for shorter periods of time into the overcrowded state prisons.

“We will have financial incentives and disincentives that we expect will prevent that kind of prosecution,” said Harris, adding that this is a good example of how the seminar will help bring to light challenges early in the process so they can be dealt with.

It was a give and take, with Harris answering questions but also offering advice, when another student described Project ReMade, an initiative she is launching to educate former prisoners about entrepreneurial enterprises so that they can start their own businesses.

“Many of them will be parents. I hope you offer parenting skills as part of that effort too,” said Harris, who praised the project.

Harris offered hope that by keeping nonviolent offenders in their own communities, close to family and services that should be better able to prevent them from returning to prison, AB 109 might help to break the cycle of recidivism. She also acknowledged the challenges everyone in the state will face in making it work.

“I cannot do this without the collaboration of one of the best institutions and students in the country,” she said. “With your research, Stanford Law School is providing leadership for the state.” She also added a caveat: “You are providing leadership for the state, and for the country. Everyone will be watching.”