In her new book Smart on Crime, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris takes on one of society's most pressing issues: reforming our broken criminal justice system.
Smart on Crime challenges basic assumptions and proposes unconventional ways to fight crime:
- Break the Cycle: Harris says corrections institutions are failing their mission -- prisoners are leaving the system as increasingly hardened criminals, not rehabilitated citizens. She lays out the program she pioneered for first-time offenders, mixing tough love with job training to straighten out young lives.
- Start in First Grade: Thousands of children are chronically truant starting as early as the first grade, says Harris. She shows how law enforcement crackdowns on parents of truant children keep kids out of jail in the long term.
- Treat Children for PTSD: Harris argues that children with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder should be treated clinically. Without treatment, children who grow up surrounded by violence are likely to commit crimes themselves.
- High-Tech Policing: Harris explains how cutting-edge technologies, like "shot spotters" which can quickly identify the precise location of gunfire, license plate scanning equipment, and the GPS, can enhance the capabilities of law enforcement.
Harris offers a Freakanomics-like examination of our criminal justice system, and delivers a comprehensive agenda for social and economic change—while making the case for the transformative impact that comes from being Smart on Crime.
Interview with Kamala Harris by Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery
What's the biggest misconception Americans have about how to fight crime?
Harris: First off, this book is predicated on one main premise, which is that all Americans have the right to live in safe communities. Having spent nearly two decades as a courtroom prosecutor, I know that it simply is not enough to just talk tough about crime. I want us to be "smart on crime." That means in order to make our communities safer, we have to take a strategic approach to changing the status quo, because our current system is failing all of us. In the book, I first address some of the myths and outdated approaches that I believe are failing. In the second half of the book, I outline the ways in which I believe we can chart a new course for tackling these long-standing problems.
Some of the biggest misconceptions that I address in the book have to do with the approach we as law enforcement take in order to protect the public. Fighting crime requires both enforcement and prevention. One approach does not exclude the other. If there is one lesson to be learned from the public health model, it is that prevention is the most effective and least costly way to stop any epidemic.
Without question, when a crime has been committed, we must respond and offenders must be held accountable. But if we want to address the overall problem of crime, and not just respond to individual cases and incidents of violence, we need to be more than reactive. We need to be proactive in stopping crime before it starts.
If you could change one thing about our criminal justice system, what would it be?
Harris: In California, one of the most serious challenges that we as law enforcement leaders face is our rate of recidivism, or re-offense, which is the highest in the nation. Within three years of being released from prison, 70 percent of offenders will end up behind bars again. If we can stop the revolving door that currently just cycles criminals in and out of prison, California can set the standard for public safety in America. In order to achieve this, however, we have to move past the false choice of being either "tough" or "soft" on crime.
I believe that it is time to instead get smart on crime, and recognize that the overwhelming majority of offenders will serve their time and return to the very same communities where they originally offended. If we don't invest the time and resources needed to make sure that prisoners' return to society is productive, we will continue to pay in terms of diminished public safety and wasted resources.
Why should people care about non-violent crime, when violent crime, including murder, is more devastating?
Harris: I am frequently asked that question, so let me start by saying this: as a career prosecutor, I believe those who commit serious and violent crimes should face swift and certain justice. I have personally tried some of the most horrific cases imaginable, and secured convictions that have sent some of the worst criminals to spend the rest of their days behind bars.
We must also recognize that "crime" is not monolithic. I have found that the "crime pyramid" is an effective way to visualize the totality of crimes committed in our society, and an effective way to communicate about how we can best fight crime. Visualizing this pyramid, at the top are the very worst crimes: murder, rape, violent assaults, crimes that rightly command our attention. While these crimes are so horrific and threatening, they form the very top of the pyramid because they constitute the minority of crimes – as only one fourth of all offenders sentenced to prison are violent offenders.
One of the main reasons we haven't been able to effectively prevent nonviolent crime is that we have been using only the tools best suited to combating the offenders at the top of the pyramid. For several decades, the passage of tough laws and long sentences has created an illusion in the public's mind that public safety is best served when we treat all offenders the same way: arrest, convict, imprison, parole, and hope they learn their lesson. But the numbers paint the true story, which is that most nonviolent offenders are learning the wrong lesson, and in many cases, they are becoming more hard¬ened criminals.
What do you tell critics who think trying to transform criminals into responsible citizens means you're "soft on crime"?
Harris: Getting smart on crime does not mean reducing sentences or punishments for crimes. Being smart on crime means using the time and resources we now spend on offenders more productively to reduce their odds of re-offending.
For decades we have spent billions of dollars on ineffective solutions that have not improved public safety. I believe that especially in these tough economic times, it is critical that we evaluate the cost of action versus the cost of inaction. I strongly believe that for serious and violent criminals, we absolutely must hold them accountable for their crimes and send them to prison. But as I discuss in the book, we must take a smarter approach when it comes to combating nonviolent crime. And it is also essential that when we look at investing in innovative ways to fight crime before it occurs, we must weigh the short-term costs of action versus the long-term costs of inaction.
Is there any evidence your "Smart on Crime" approach works?
Harris: Absolutely, and I am proud of the successes we have had in San Francisco. Since I took office in 2004, we've raised the felony conviction rate to its highest level in 15 years. We're winning convictions and making sure that offenders are held accountable. Roughly twice as many people were sentenced to state prison in 2008, compared to 2003. By creating a gun specialist team we've been able to achieve great success in felony gun trials, doubling the conviction rate from a little over 40 percent in 2003 to more than 90 percent.
Our innovative efforts to close the revolving door that cycles criminals in and out of the system – with an emphasis on first-time, non-violent low level drug offenders – have also achieved remarkable results. Police and prosecutors are deluged with low-level drug cases, and the public spends billions on prisons to warehouse these offenders. And, every year, prisons release hundreds of thousands of these offenders back into our communities. They have no plan, no skills, nowhere to go, and they pick up right where they left off.
That is why in 2005, I created an initiative called Back On Track. Back on Track is a reentry initiative designed to redirect young people who are mostly in their early 20's, have no prior criminal records and were caught for low-level drug offenses. None of their cases involves gangs, guns, or weapons.
We give them a choice: they can go through a tough, year-long program that will require them to get educated, stay employed, be responsible parents, drug test, and transition to a crime-free life, or they can go to jail. Those who choose Back On Track plead guilty to their crime, and their jail sentence is deferred while they appear before a judge every two weeks for at least a year. They must obtain a high-school-equivalency diploma and hold down a steady job. Fathers need to get and stay in good standing on their child-support payments, and everyone has to take parenting classes. For people who hit all of these milestones, the felony charge is going to be cleared from their records.
The results speak for the wisdom of investing in reentry programs. For this population, the recidivism re-offense rate is above 50 percent. Four years into this initiative, recidivism has been less than 10 percent among Back On Track graduates. And the program costs only $5,000 per person, compared to over $40,000 a year for county jail. That saves our city roughly $1 million per year in jail costs alone. When you add in the total expense of criminal prosecutions to taxpayers, including court costs, public defenders, state prison, and probation, the savings are closer to $2 million. And we cannot even begin to quantify the value of these individuals' future productivity, taxes and child support payments, or the brightened prospects for their children.
That is why both Governor Schwarzenegger and the US Department of Justice have recognized Back on Track as a model for both our state and nation.
Is there something the average citizen should do to help reduce crime?
Harris: There are a number of ways citizens can help reduce crime. First, citizens must protect and look out for one another. You should view yourselves as partners with law enforcement, helping with neighborhood safety efforts; supporting local organizations that fight domestic violence, child abuse, and elder abuse; coming forward to help police if you witness a crime. Being active in your own communities also means asking your leaders – law enforcement leaders, elected officials, policymakers, or otherwise: "what is your plan to prevent crime and break the cycles of crime?" – and then working together to forge solutions to longstanding problems.
What question should Crimesider have asked you that we didn't … and what's the answer?
Harris: A question I'm often asked is, "Why on earth would a District Attorney take on the issue of school truancy?" The answer is straightforward: I believe there is a direct connection between public safety and education. When I learned that more than 2,400 San Francisco elementary school children had missed as many as 80 days of a 180-day school year, I knew we were facing a school truancy crisis that had to be addressed.
There is a reason that we have compulsory education laws. As a product of California's public schools, I believe that a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime. Two-thirds of inmates in our prisons were high school dropouts. Our children are being educated on the streets instead of in a classroom. Here's what we did: we began by putting parents on notice, and then prosecuting those who failed to avail themselves of the offered services that would enable them to get their children back in school on a regular basis. Since we started this initiative with the San Francisco Unified School District four years ago, attendance among elementary school students has improved an average of 20 percent.
This is the type of smart on crime approach that can, and should, be adopted around the state and nation.
Kamala D. Harris was elected San Francisco's District Attorney in 2003 and ran unopposed for reelection in 2007. She was born in Oakland, California, where she began her career as a prosecutor. Harris attended Howard University, and then the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. She has been featured on the Oprah Show and in Newsweek as one of "America's 20 Most Powerful Women." In both 2004 and 2008, she helped develop the Democratic Party's national platform for criminal justice. Harris served as co-chair of Barack Obama's presidential campaign in California.