Kamala Harris, California’s next attorney general, announced a transition leadership team that the Los Angeles Times says underscored Harris’ intent to upend decades of California attitudes about crime and punishment. On the list were reformist police chiefs, like Los Angeles’ former William Bratton, San Francisco’s George Gascon, and Oakland’s Anthony Batts, who in the future may serve as symbolic assurance to voters as Harris works to make the criminal justice system reform criminals rather than lock them up perpetually.
Californians have been far more ensconced in the lock-’em-up camp, loading ballots with measures to extend sentences and preclude judicial flexibility. Harris believes she has a new and powerful ally: the foundering economy. Harris, San Francisco’s district attorney, has made no secret of her desire to shake up the prison system. She argues that criminal justice money is wasted on the “revolving door” that prison has become as 70 percent of the 120,000 convicts released annually end up being caught committing new crimes. She believes prison should be the punishment for serious offenders and that greater pains should be taken to prod milder offenders with education, counseling, probation and other community-based support. Her narrow victory did not suggest mass interest in her criminal justice proposals. Recent polling suggests that, more than in past years, Californians may be in the mood to at least entertain changes to the system. Poll after poll has found that Californians want cuts in the prison budget, and those cuts have more of a chance during the present period of lower crime rates rather than in the emotion of high-crime years.