SACRAMENTO (AP) — Democrat Kamala Harris was sworn in as attorney general on Monday, becoming the first woman and first minority to hold California’s top law enforcement office.
She told hundreds of supporters that she will be an innovator who will be smart on crime as well as tough on crime.
“Being smart on crime is about doing more preventing and less reacting,” she said, promising to target chronic truancy and the underlying causes of criminal behavior as she did during two terms as San Francisco district attorney.
She pledged to send prosecutors on the road to work with county district attorneys to fight environmental crimes. She said she will join with the federal government and attorneys general from other border states in a regional approach to combatting transnational gangs that cross into Mexico.
She said she will work to reform an overcrowded, costly prison system in which seven of 10 parolees are quickly sent back behind bars. A good starting place is with female inmates, she said, because 60 percent are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes and two-thirds are mothers who have an extra incentive to turn their lives around.
About 10,000 of California’s 163,000 adult inmates are women.
“For many offenders, prison amounts to attending crime college,” Harris said in a 28-minute speech that ran longer than that delivered by new Gov. Jerry Brown earlier in the day. “Most nonviolent offenders are learning the wrong lesson.”
California should come down hard on violent offenders while finding alternative punishments for those who commit property and other crimes, she said. However, she also said the state should increase penalties for those who engage in high-tech crimes including spammers and financial predators, making sentences just as severe as for those who burglarize homes.
Harris promised to fight for the civil rights of every Californian, which includes allowing gays and lesbians to marry. She, like Brown, has said she will not intervene in a court battle over California’s voter-approved ban on gay marriages that later was thrown out by a federal judge. The case is now on appeal.
University of California, Los Angeles psychiatry professor David Farabee applauded Harris’ reform agenda, although he said the criminal justice system is tough to change. Farabee is the author of “Rethinking Rehabilitation: Why Can’t We Reform Our Criminals?”
“The promising aspect of this is she’s at least acknowledging there’s a need for change and innovation,” he said. “How easy that is, is a different question.”
State lawmakers have generally opposed anything that could be interpreted as softening criminal sentences. They and voters have enacted tougher sentencing laws in recent years, sending more people to prison yet failing to raise the revenue to pay for the additional incarceration costs. That has led to an even larger drain on the state budget.
Farabee said Harris’ views may have more general support outside Sacramento.
“I think we overuse incarceration of nonviolent offenders. I think most people would prefer we have plenty of beds to incarcerate predatory offenders,” he said.
Harris, 46, is the daughter of a father from Jamaica and mother from India. She defeated Republican Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley in a tight race in November.
She waited four weeks to claim victory in a race decided by seven-tenths of a percentage point, or 70,000 of the roughly 10 million votes cast.
Her inauguration drew a diverse, standing-room only crowd that spilled from the courtyard of the California Museum for History, Women and The Arts into a neighboring auditorium. Onlookers crowded balconies and watched from windows as a traditional Indian dancer opened the ceremony and a gospel singer led a hand-clapping spiritual to close.
Phyllis Marshall of Sacramento attended law school with Harris and brought her 18-year-old daughter to witness what she called an historic event. She said Harris’ election shows people do not have to give up their convictions to be successful.
“You can do the right thing, and people will respond,” she said.
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