By Emily Anderson
October 13, 2010 (San Diego) – Attorney General candidate Kamala Harris, speaking at the Democratic headquarters in Clairemont yesterday, pledged to help fix "our broken criminal justice system" if elected. Harris, who is part African American and part Asian, would be the first woman and first African American to hold the state attorney general office position if she wins.
Shortly after her appearance in San Diego, Harris won a powerful endorsement from President Barack Obama, who called her a “strong voice for Californians.”
The President noted that, as San Francisco’s District Attorney, Harris launched early intervention programs to reduce the cycle of repeat offenders, created a child sexual assault unit and environmental justice unit. “She prioritized the prosecution of financial predators, processing over 450 consumer complaints in 2009 and forming the state's first stand-alone Mortgage and Investment Fraud Unit,” the President added. “Now she's running to be California's attorney general, and I am proud to stand by her. She is someone who understands the needs of all Americans, and I need allies like that fighting for change across the country.”
Harris told San Diego supporters that she became an attorney to help in the fight for justice. “I grew up surrounded by adults who (went) full time marching and shouting about this thing we call justice,” she said, naming Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Motley as lawyers she considers heroes. “They were those individuals who were using the skills of this great profession to translate the passion from the streets to the courtrooms of our country. They reminded folks … of that promise we articulated in 1776, that we are all and should be treated as equals.”
She noted that her Republican opponent, Steve Cooley, supports Proposition 8, while she does not. Harris said she considers the measure unconstitutional and therefore too costly to defend.
Regarding her stance on justice and fixing California’s broken system, she said that rather than assuming Democrats are soft on crime and that Republicans are tough on crime, we as a state need to think instead of how to be smart on crime.
For example, she created the Back on Track initiative which helped 18 -24-year-olds who were first time, non-violent drug user offenders become productive adults. She said that this age group is a big population of people who are arrested who clog the system, while making it costly to keep them incarcerated.
She noted that young adults in college are thought of as kids because it is the time of life in which schools help shape the future of these adults. Regarding the criminal justice system, she said that first time non-violent drug users who are 18 to 24-year-olds are considered adults who haven’t had guidance. Her Back on Track initiative, she said, was so successful that the U.S. Department of Justice told law enforcement agencies across the U.S. to implement steps to help this segment of the population get back on track. She said within a five year period, the re-offend rate dropped from 54 percent to less than 10 percent.
First, she worked to have them receive GEDs and then they enrolled in community colleges to learn apprenticeship skills, such as how to become plumbers or carpenters. She said that although these first time, non-violent drug user offenders are mostly parents and have the natural desire to parent their children, they didn’t necessarily have life skills to be a productive adult.
Aside from the Back on Track initiative, she also noted that about 120,000 California prisoners are released each year, but within three years of their release, 70 percent of them re-offend. The said California has the highest recidivism rate in the country, which is why she sees the justice system as broken. This re-offend rate is bad because not only does this equal a broken justice system, it means that it costs California between $10 billion and $25 billion. Secondly, it costs citizens our public safety.
“There must be leadership in this state in what we have always known we are and can do, which is leadership around innovation, which is understanding that we don’t have to be burdened by defining success in a job based on blind adherence to tradition,” she said, referring to the fact that if elected as attorneys general, she won’t fall into tradition; she will fix the justice system.
East County Magazine asked Hale her views on whether drivers in fatality accidents should be required to undergo mandatory blood draws to test for alcohol and drugs, a law that has been proposed by family members of Bridgett Hale, a Ramona mother killed by a wrong-way driver on Highway 67. The driver was charged only with a misdemeanor because CHP did not order a blood test. The proposed law is supposed by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.
Harris said she was not familiar with the case, but added that is it possible she could support blood draws to be mandatory law that CHP officials must follow in the future. If blood had been drawn and confirmed that the driver in Hale’s case was under the influence, he could have faced felony charges and a substantially longer jail terms. “I’ve … talked with many juries about what our justice demands and dictates, that there will be serious and swift and sever accountability when one human being kills another human being, or when a woman is raped or a child is molested,” she said. “I have done that unfortunate work of having to stand in front of juries … to talk about why in a civil and just society there will be severe consequences when one human being harms another human being.”
Harris looked poised as she spoke on criminal justice issues as well as the importance of health care, protecting the environment, and electing Democrats at all levels. She noted that when President Obama was elected, his supporters elected a leader who was willing to reform health care and that California will be responsible for implementing the new health care laws. As a woman running for the California attorney general, she knows healthcare is important to everyone.
“We elected a leader saying that to be a female, to be a woman, should not be a preexisting condition for the purposes of having access to health care,” she said. “We decided that it is just and right in … society that everyone, regardless of their economic status, will have access to affordable health care. “
Harris said her Republican opponent, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, would if elected involve California in a lawsuit which was brought on by a southern state’s attorney general regarding healthcare. She feels the lawsuit would be detrimental to California.
Harris, 46, also spoke about the environment and related it to Proposition 23, which will appear on the November ballot and is funded by Texas oil companies. She gave background on how the proposition was created, saying that AB 32, (an assembly bill signed into law, would decrease greenhouse gas emissions standards for the state of California. Gov. Schwarzenegger and Democrats championed the creation of AB 32, which would be undone if Proposition 23 passed.
“(All) Democrats and Republicans and Green Party members had this one thing in common, if not many things … We need to breathe air,” Harris said, as the audience chuckled. “When California implements AB 32, it will be the beginning of a movement that will float throughout this country and they want to kill it before it begins,” she added, explaining that challenger Steve Cooley will not take a stance on Proposition 23.
Later she said she’d have to determine each case on a case-by-case basis, and would balance privacy of the individual offender and the need to protect victims.
Harris said that another reason the attorney general position is important is because attorney generals title propositions and write proposition summaries. She said that it’s important to be fair and honest, because voters will often only read the titles and summaries before voting. But she also said that it’s important to look at how the office of attorney general can do better.
How would she do better?
Harris said that in meeting with groups of voters, they want to hear plans to fix broken systems. “We talk about systems and how we can reform them,” she continued. ” We are prepared to not appeal to some malaise discussion about what it means to be American. I believe there are two definitions of what it means to be a patriot. I believe there is the definition that suggests if you defend your country, (you are one), and then there is the definition of what I believe is the kind of patriot I am, which is you fight for the ideals of your country. And in that way, we are all patriots. And we are all going to be fighting for many, many important ideals that we actually know we can achieve.”
She said that the attorneys general election is more important than people realize, because who is elected will dictate what happens in the lives of citizens for the next eight years.
Aside from Democratic volunteer attendees, County Board of Supervisors candidate Stephen Whitburn and California Assembly member Lori Saldaña were also in attendance.