Curbing Crime: When Being Tough Isn't Enough

California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives her first news conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010. i i

California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives her first news conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010. Damian Dovarganes/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Damian Dovarganes/AP
California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives her first news conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives her first news conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

Kamala Harris made history in 2010 as the first woman, first African-American and first South Asian-American to become Calif.'s Attorney General. Host Michel Martin speaks with Harris about the difference between being tough vs. smart on crime; ideas on reforming the criminal justice system; and Harris' address at the NAACP's upcoming convention.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up on Friday President Obama took the last official step necessary to end the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. We'll have more on that in just a few minutes from a former Marine officer who's been advocating for some time that the ban be lifted. But first, a newsmaker interview with the attorney general of California, Kamala Harris. She is already a history maker upon her election last year.

She became the first woman first African-American and first South Asian American to be selected to serve as California's top lawyer. Her rise from trial attorney to national figure has drawn comparisons to one of her well known supporters, President Barack Obama. But we want to talk with her about a subject people don't usually associate with prosecutors: civil rights. She is one of the headliners at the 102 annual convention of the NAACP, one of the country's oldest civil rights organizations and they're meeting in Los Angeles.

We caught up with her in advance of her talk with the group. Attorney General Harris welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

KAMALA HARRIS: Thank you, Michel. I'm honored to be a part of it.

MARTIN: You campaigned on the notion of being smart on crime, not just tough on crime. What's the difference?

HARRIS: I think for too long we have discussed criminal justice policy in a way that has reduced the conversation down to just two places which are false places; you're either soft on crime or you're tough on crime. Instead of asking more appropriately I'll be smart on crime. I feel very strongly that to be smart on crime we should not be in a position of constantly reacting to crime after it happens. We should be looking at preventing crime before it happens.

MARTIN: Why do you think that that argument has not been more successful in our public discourse? I mean, for example you still put out press releases touting large numbers of arrest. You put out one just last month well, you know, touting dozens of arrests in a major central valley gang take down but you don't necessarily put out press releases saying this is how many people have not been arrested or something. Do you understand what I'm saying? I mean, how...

HARRIS: Yeah, I mean, well, let's make a couple of points. One I think we all agree that when one human being kills another human being, when a woman is raped, when a child is molested there should be serious and severe consequences. But we also have to do the work of realizing that crime is not monolithic. Not all crime is serious and violent crime, but we have a one size fits all approach to all crime and it's failing us.

We need to really understand as a society that crime really exists on a pyramid; that's how I see it. So at the top at the pyramid is the most serious and violent crime. But in most of what is occupying our resources and time in the criminal justice system is in the middle and the bottom of that pyramid and we need to deal with that. We have to deal with the fact that in California, for example, we release 120,000 prisoners a year. Within three years, they're released, 70 percent reoffend.

We have got to get smarter and shut that revolving door and one of the best ways to do that - and I know it because I created an initiative when I was DA of San Francisco - is to focus on low level first offenders and bring together the community around a public-private partnership involving chambers of commerce and building trades unions and our faith based community to do what we can to reintegrate that person back into the community, give them job skills, give them parenting support.

Help them with their housing situation in a way that they can stand on their feet and not reenter the criminal justice system.

MARTIN: Attorney General Harris one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you aside from the obvious is that we noted that you are speaking to the NAACP, and one of the things we were thinking about was the fact that the kind of heroes in the legal community that African-Americans traditionally look up to have been civil rights lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, or criminal defense attorneys like Johnnie Cochran. One does not tend to see prosecutors held up as, you know, role models in the African-American community. I was curious if one of the reasons you wanted to speak with this group is that you wanted to change that?

HARRIS: I absolutely believe there's a direct connection between the struggle and fight for civil rights and what needs to happen in terms of public safety and I'll just give you a little bit about my background. I'm one of two daughters of parents who met when they were graduate students at the University of California Berkley in the 1960's, and they met when they were actively involved in the civil rights movement.

In fact, we joke that I grew up surrounded by adults who spent full time marching and shouting about this thing we call justice. And the architects of that civil rights movement as you mentioned were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley, and they understood the power of the profession of law to be a voice for the vulnerable and voiceless. So I, at a young age, decided I wanted to be a lawyer because of them.

When I came out of law school I made a decision to become a prosecutor, and yes, that was considered to be a curious decision given my background. But what I said then and what I absolutely maintain today is that law enforcement has such a profound and direct impact on the most vulnerable among us and has, as it's responsibility and job, to be a voice for the voiceless and also in the process of giving safety give dignity.

In my career as a prosecutor I have seen that to be true. In a way that I have, for example, stood before a jury and said, the penal code was not designed just to protect Snow White. When, perhaps the case involved someone who had been a prostitute who was raped. It has also been about looking at issues like child exploitation and human trafficking and I believe that among the civil rights that we have is the right to be safe in our communities.

MARTIN: You know, the polls show consistently, if you survey the attitudes of whites and African-Americans and Latinos, there's a lot of overlap and a lot of agreement on many issues, but the one area where these groups really diverge is on their opinion of criminal justice, with whites as a group tending to believe that the criminal justice system is fair, and African-Americans far more skeptical about that and Latinos also far more skeptical. Do you think that's a bridgeable gap?

HARRIS: I do, I mean, I wrote a book called "Smart On Crime." It has many chapters that talk about just the various myths that I think have precluded or slowed down our ability to have smarter criminal justice policy. And among them is the myth that African-Americans people of color don't want law enforcement, we do. What we don't want is we don't want racial profiling, we don't want excessive force, but then nobody does. So what we have to do is also get to the point of having a dialogue that understands that we have many common principles across these racial lines and start from that point.

Let's start from the point of realizing - and I know this as a career prosecutor - law enforcement more than anybody to do its job needs to have the trust of the community it polices.

MARTIN: Well, what about the corollary of that which is, you know, I'm sure you've heard this better than anybody, of how many African-American and Latino professionals who feel that they are just routinely treated with rudeness by people in law enforcement not to mention when it escalates to excessive force, but often what you find in these interactions is it starts with persons feeling that their dignity has been abused. What about that?

HARRIS: And there's no question that the issue of racial profiling is something that has to be addressed. It has to be the responsibility of law enforcement, together with communities, to engage in whatever education is necessary, training is necessary, or discipline that is necessary to eliminate racial profiling in our society because that is exactly right. It then creates and produces these relationships of distrust which hamper our ability to have a productive society.

MARTIN: I want to mention that we are speaking to - you were nice enough to interrupt your schedule to talk to us in advance of your speech. What is your message...

HARRIS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...to the NAACP?

HARRIS: You know, I'm developing it. And I'm going to talk about three subjects that are part of my priorities as attorney general. It is the issue of what we need to do to reform the criminal justice system, which is what we've been discussing. Second, it is the discussion about the issue of public education and taking seriously the need to educate our young children and make sure they are in school. And then third, the issue of mortgage fraud. So, those three subjects I'm going to talk about - I'm going to talk about them in the context of a bigger and an important point that we need to discuss more, which is the relationship politically, socially between our Latino Hispanic community and African-American community. Because when I look at these three subjects as examples, we are equally impacted.

You look at the statistics about who's in the criminal justice system. African-American and Latinos make up nearly 60 percent of all prisoners, even though together we're just about 25 percent of the population. You look at the numbers in terms of education in California, I can tell you, of all African-American and Latino 9th graders today, less than half will graduate high school.

You look at who's impacted by the mortgage fraud crisis. Fifty percent of those impacted, who lost their homes, or in the process of losing their homes, are African-American and Latino. And we know they are not 50 percent of all homeowners.

So all of these issues are issues that equally impact us. And I feel very strongly that if we do more work in recommitting ourselves to what I remember my parents doing back in the '60s, which is the coalition work, I think we will be stronger in our message and we will be stronger in our goal of reforming broken systems.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I did want to ask you about a developing story in California. There's a report that the three-week-old hunger strike taking place in a number of California prisons is at an end. Advocates for the prisoners say it is not. But I'd like to ask you about that. Why has it come to this point? I mean, obviously many people have reported on, you know, the overcrowding in a number of California penal institutions, the conditions there. The particular issue that seemed to have been sparking this hunger strike where some of their prisoners and their advocates believe there's an excessive use of solitary confinement. I'd like to just get your take on this situation. Do you think that the prisoners have valid concerns?

HARRIS: You know, I don't run the prisons, unfortunately or fortunately.

MARTIN: I know.

HARRIS: But I think that there is a discussion that is happening that should be happening about what we're doing with the prison system. I think we need improvement in particular around what we're providing for incarcerated men and women by way of education, by way of mental health treatment, by way of substance abuse treatment. I think we are woefully inadequate in doing that. And it is in all of our best interest to address what goes on in the prisons in terms of those issues.

Because the fact of the matter is that in California, for example, the average prison sentence is 24 months, which tells you a couple of things. One, most of the folks that are being sentenced then, are not being sentenced for the worse of the worse crimes that we imagine and have three padlocks on our door for. But the second point there is that a 24-month average sentence means they are all coming out.

And we have created criminal justice policy around locking people up and not dealing with the next step, which is, what are we doing with them when they come out? So that they don't go back in and cost us all the money that they cost us through their lives in the criminal justice system.

MARTIN: Kamala Harris is the attorney general of the state of California. As we mentioned, she's a headliner at the NAACP convention, the 102nd convention, which is meeting in Los Angeles. She was nice enough to stop by our member station KQED in San Francisco. Attorney General Harris, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

HARRIS: I hope so too. And thank you, Michel.

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