San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris
The first in a series of Interviews with statewide Democratic candidates who will be attending the Democratic State Convention in Sacramento, April 24 — April 26.
Kamala Harris is the first female District Attorney to be elected in San Francisco, the first elected African American District Attorney in California and the first Indian American elected District Attorney in the country. She’s initiated a number of new programs in the office. The 44-year-old former Alameda County deputy district attorney won a December 2003 run-off and was easily re-elected in 2007. Smart, witty and articulate, she talks to California’s Capitol about her campaign for California Attorney General.
CC: What’s the most important aspect of being Attorney General?
KH: It is a very important office and relates directly to a lot of issues that impact people on a daily basis. For example, one of the areas I’m focused on is market fraud and predatory lending. As the state’s chief elected law enforcement officer and lawyer there is a role to play to create priorities around fraudulent practices that are affecting the most vulnerable people, particularly in this economic environment.
I’m a native Californian. So goes California, so goes the rest of the country. California can — and should — continue to provide leadership on what should be the emission standards for our country, what’s happening with dumping, the reality of environmental justice issues. Some of the poorest economic communities have experienced that for quite some time.
My focus as a career prosecutor has been the criminal justice system. The Attorney General plays a key role in supporting local prosecutors and locally elected district attorneys. (Former Attorney General Bill) Lockyer did some work around creating databases embracing new technologies through DNA. New science is available but not necessarily integrated as a law enforcement tool. You can take from the best of new technology and science and bring it to bear in creating justice for the criminal justice system. Modern day version of that is what the Attorney General can do to support the investigation and prosecution of Internet crimes.
CC: The Attorney General should take charge of prosecuting Internet crimes?
KH: I’m not suggesting the Attorney General take over and intervene in local jurisdictions. More of what I’m thinking about is what the Attorney General can do to provide support for local police departments.
Another one of the areas I’ve been talking about and thinking about in this local support area is you may remember Abraham Lincoln had a whole group of circuit riders to bring resources of to the local legal community. The Attorney General’s office can supply that support, both environmental and high tech crime, to help local jurisdictions that may want to prosecute but don’t necessarily have the resources. It’s work that can and should be done.
CC: What made you want to run for Attorney General? That’s the softball pitch.
KH: I really want to do the job. You’re talking to a non-guy who has spent her entire adult career putting people in jail for long periods of time and doing it with a smile on my face. In particular, it is also the work of making sure the most vulnerable people in our community have a voice and there is accountability when they’re the victims. Where there are consequences when people prey on the most vulnerable among us. That why I love being a prosecutor because it’s about empowering people who are perceived to be and may often be weak.
CC: What guides you as a prosecutor?
KH: As a prosecutor the process by which you achieve justice is as important as the outcome. The process of achieving justice not only entails running a professional office but doing so in a way that uses the bully pulpit to prevent crimes in communities. This morning I had a whole session out in the Bay View section of San Francisco. We have a three-part initiative on mortgage fraud, which includes a partnership with the assessor to do workshops around the city on financial literacy. We also talk about what we should do through legislation.
That’s another role the Attorney General can have — support of legislation that supports vulnerable people. We’re asking Sen. (Ron) Calderon to create higher penalties for people who commit mortgage fraud. The third piece, in addition to the public education, is prosecution.
Achieving justice gets to the integrity of the system and the role of the Attorney General around issues like environmental justice. Its about the Attorney General using the resources of the office and the structure of the office as it exists and covering the basics in an effective way and then also applying innovation to create new solutions for problems that have existed for too long.
CC: What makes a good Attorney General?
KH: Most important, the Attorney General has to have the experience and quality to allow them to understand the law, to respect the law and understand the power of the office so she can make decisions that will benefit the greater good.
CC: Do you support capital punishment?
KH: It’s no secret I think the death penalty is a flawed system but I will uphold the law. And I don’t think my position is any different than four out of the last nine attorney generals.
CC: The four are?
KH: Lockyer. Jerry Brown. Stanley Mosk and Pat Brown. And they’ve all enforced the law.
CC: Pat Brown, the former DA of San Francisco.
KH: It was 60 years to the day after Pat Brown was inaugurated as DA that I took office. Tom Lynch was his Number 2 and ended up being Attorney General after him.
CC: Harry Truman used to say, “The only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know.”
KH: Exactly. When I first got elected, I went down to the public library and went into the archives. I wanted to do a photo display of all the elected DAs in San Francisco — what a motley, wonderful crew of people. I take some pride in where I started my career. I started as a prosecutor in Alameda County and Earl Warren, of course, was the DA of Alameda County. It was Brown versus Board of Education, which allowed me to be the second class to integrate Berkeley public schools. It took over 10 years for it to actually get going.
CC: Back to the death penalty for a second. Flawed in what way?
KH: Many ways. In terms of the flawed system, in terms of what we need to do around an efficient use of limited resources in the criminal justice system. Not housing octogenarians on Death Row could put 1,000 more cops on the street.
CC: Can a candidate from San Francisco win statewide? Overcome that perception that San Francisco is too liberal?
KH: I don’t necessarily agree with the premise. In some places there is a stereotype of San Francisco but that’s not what I’ve found — and I have been traveling the state both as a candidate for Attorney General and an elected DA. A lot of counties, from San Bernardino to San Diego, have asked about what we do and how they can do it too.
I was vice president on the board of the national DA’s association. That’s a collection of folks from Missouri and Alabama and Texas and all over the country. The experience I’ve had is that once you establish yourself as credible — why you’re doing what you’re doing — people are willing to get beyond stereotypes and look at the example of your leadership.
We’ve increased conviction rates to the highest they’ve been in 13 years. We’ve increased the number of violent felons we’ve sent to prison by 40 percent. We’ve increased the number of gun offenders from 43 percent to 90 percent. I created a gun policy when I came in as DA with pretty strict guidelines on how we would handle those cases.
CC: How would you compare yourself to the other candidates for Attorney General?
KH: Here’s the reality: Who is in and who may be in, I’m the only career prosecutor in the race. I’ve stood before juries and asked them to return a guilty verdict in murder cases and they have.
CC: What role can the Attorney General play in the state’s seemingly endless budget mess?
KH: First, critically examine how the criminal justice system is working and whether we are being most efficient with limited dollars. Here’s an obvious example: Recidivism. California has the highest recidivism rate in the country. On an annual basis we release more than 120,000 prisoners and within two years of their release 71 percent recidivate. That’s costing us a lot of money.
In San Francisco, we created a re-entry initiative in my office. Its called “Back on Track.” It’s for low-level, first-time, non-violent offenders. I brought on my friends from labor — the building trades guys — friends from the business community, non-profits, and we give the parolees job skills development, education and help them meet things like parenting needs. A lot of these young offenders are parents. We reduced recidivism for this specific population from 54 percent to less than 10 percent. The national DA’s association has designated “Back on Track” as a national model.
CC: It’s like the juvenile justice system. If the kids got a scare the first time they screw up instead of the fifteenth time they would be more likely to stop offending.
KH: That’s right. A kid all of sudden turns 18 and they’ve been used to being in a system that doesn’t necessarily take their conduct seriously. So they end up at 18 and still doing what they did at 16 or 17 and they have their first felony. For them, that’s the end. And you and I are paying for it because they spend a life cycling in and out of the criminal justice system. I think we would all want our money to go for a better use like making sure we’re safe in our communities.
CC: One of the more obscure jobs of the Attorney General is to sit on the Commission on Judicial Appointments, which approves or disapproves appellate and supreme court justices. Is there any criteria you would require from judges who —
KH: Is there a litmus test? No.
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