Enjoy millions of ebooks, audiobooks, magazines, and more, with a free trial

Only $11.99/month after trial. Cancel anytime.

Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer
Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer
Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer
Ebook270 pages3 hours

Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars



About this ebook

The vice president and former San Francisco district attorney presents her vision for smart criminal justice and public safety.

Before she became the vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris was committed to fighting crime as a prosecutor in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice. Originally published in 2009, Smart on Crime shares her insight and offers a new approach designed to end the cycle of repeat offenders.

Harris shatters the old distinctions rooted in false choices and myths. She presents practical solutions for making the criminal justice system truly—not just rhetorically—tough. Smart on Crime spells out the policy shifts required to increase public safety, reduce costs, and strengthen our communities.
Release dateJul 1, 2010
Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer

Reviews for Smart on Crime

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

3 ratings0 reviews

What did you think?

Tap to rate

Review must be at least 10 words

    Book preview

    Smart on Crime - Kamala D. Harris


    Good choices demand a clear understanding of what’s at stake. As a career prosecutor, I believe that nothing is more important than how we choose to keep ourselves, our families, and each other safe. Unfortunately, there are substantial gaps and flaws in the ways we handle crime today. If we choose merely to perpetuate the status quo, we will do so at great cost—a cost we can ill afford. We will miss the opportunity to improve public safety, and we will incur huge and unnecessary financial costs. It is well within our reach to find better solutions, to create a more effective criminal justice system, and to forge true partnerships between communities and law enforcement.

    I am convinced that our country has an opportunity to adopt a modern, cost-effective crime-fighting agenda that delivers the safety we deserve. It is my hope that this book can play a part in that work by exposing some of the myths about crime that have bound us to ineffective approaches. I want to illuminate promising new models that we can build upon and use to make safety something entire communities both demand and deliver. I see extraordinary, exciting opportunities for change.

    Crime and optimism do not always go hand in hand. But optimism and problem solving are part of my DNA. I was born in 1964 in Oakland, California, to two graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley. They came from very different cultures. My father, Donald, grew up in a large family in Jamaica, where he excelled in school, became a national scholar, and earned the opportunity to study economics at U.C. Berkeley. My mother, Shyamala, was born in India; she was the daughter of a diplomat from southern India who traveled the world as a government official. He didn’t flinch at sending his nineteen-year-old daughter to the United States to pursue her passion and talent for science, specifically endocrinology and the complex mechanisms of cancer. My mother was supposed to return home to India and an arranged marriage when her studies were complete. But she was drawn to the Berkeley civil rights movement where she met my father, and she opted to sidestep traditions that, in my family, go back to 500 B.C. She pursued a marriage based on love instead, one of the greatest expressions of optimism any of us makes. That choice produced my younger sister, Maya, and me.

    My parents’ marriage ultimately did not last. Nonetheless, Maya and I grew up with a deep sense of the richness of our parents’ cultures and their love of and appreciation for new ideas. I remember our trips to Jamaica when I was a child. I remember sitting on my grandmother’s front porch for hours chewing on sugarcane. My father and uncles would talk to us about the complicated struggles of the people of Jamaica—the history of slavery, colonialism, and immigration.

    Meanwhile, every two years we traveled to India, where my earliest memories are of walking along the beach with my grandfather and his friends, retired public servants who had spent their careers in government, working to solve public problems. I would watch them play poker and bridge and listen to them talk about politics, corruption, and reform. My grandfather would talk to me about the importance of doing the right thing, the just thing. He was part of the movement for India to gain independence, and later became Joint Secretary for the Indian government, a post akin to our Deputy Secretary of State. He had numerous foreign service assignments, including several years as an advisor to the newly independent government of Zambia in Africa. My grandmother was betrothed to him at age twelve and began living with him at sixteen, and she was quite a force in her own right. After they were married, she would sometimes take to the streets with a bullhorn to talk to poor women about how they could get birth control. My grandfather would joke that her community activism would be the end of his career. That never stopped her. She is still vibrant and interested in the world at eighty-six, and many a morning my mother would receive a phone call at dawn because my grandmother had read online about my career or some political development in San Francisco or elsewhere in the United States that she wanted to discuss and debate. Both of my grandparents impressed upon me their conviction that we each have the capacity and the responsibility to work for a better world and a more just society.

    Maya and I were raised by people who had a passion for life and were engaged in the world around them, whether that world was Jamaica’s struggling economy, the business of state for India, or the marches taking place in my hometown. As for me, I had a stroller’s eye view of a watershed moment in our country’s struggle for social justice, the civil rights movement that unfolded in Berkeley and Oakland. My early memories are of a sea of legs marching around the streets and the sounds of shouting. The conversations in our apartment in the Berkeley flatlands area on Bancroft Avenue would go late into the night, and, of course, we picked up the language of the movement. My mother used to laugh when she told the story about a time I was fussing as a toddler: She leaned down to ask me, Kamala, what’s wrong? What do you want? and I wailed back, Fweedom.

    I spent many of my after-school days at the nursery school below our apartment. It was run by a wonderful, elegant woman from Louisiana named Regina Shelton, who became our second mother while ours was at work. Mrs. Shelton was a traditional southern woman in many ways—particularly in her kitchen, where she made fresh biscuits, peach cobbler, gumbo, and black-eyed peas. She always had children running around the house, but when it was time to serve her husband, Arthur, his dinner every night, she would shoo everyone away from the table and serve Arthur his dinner as if he were the king of Berkeley.

    Ours was not an economically rich neighborhood, but it was a place where many families were deeply involved in the local community. In addition to running her nursery school, Mrs. Shelton, for example, constantly reached out to neglected children and to women who were struggling to hold their families together. She took in many foster children, and adopted at least one that I recall. Mrs. Shelton conveyed not only what was right and wrong but the importance of nurturing all the neighborhood’s children. She never talked about these wonderful deeds; that would have violated some deep code of values where the starting point was that, of course, you treat all children in your community as your own; of course you reach out to a mother in hard times and share what you have, even if it isn’t very much.

    Like so many of us, I am a blend of my experiences and my history, my parents’ passions and interests, my community’s values, and the fast-changing world in which I grew up. Over time, I became very focused on the idea of justice and doing the right thing, echoing my grandfather’s great preoccupations. And ultimately, I became an attorney because I was inspired by towering figures from the civil rights movement who found a way to channel the passion of activists for justice into important legislation and reform—specifically, Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, and Constance Baker Motley. They reached back to the intentions of the founding fathers of our country and created a more just world by interpreting those fundamental principles of equality, making them as relevant in the 1970s as they had been in the 1770s. They used the courts to go from outside to inside, to get a seat at the table and move government in a more just direction.

    I saw the chance to follow their lead when I began my career as an Alameda County, California, prosecutor in 1990. And today, I am the chief elected law enforcement officer of a major U.S. city. Still driving me is the notion that safety is a fundamental civil right. I believe that people have a right to feel safe on the streets and in their homes, and they have a right to keep and protect the things for which they’ve worked.

    But after nearly twenty years prosecuting people who rob others of their dignity and rightful claim to justice, I feel that as a society we must demand a much higher return on the enormous investment we make in our criminal justice system. From a young age, my father, who eventually became a professor of economics at Stanford University, impressed on us that it is important not just to go about things with good intentions, but also to measure the impact of the steps you take to pursue those intentions. Following my father’s lead, I majored in economics as an undergraduate student at Howard University before I went on to law school at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. I believe that in the criminal justice system notions such as supply and demand, input and output, and looking for patterns are not abstract concepts. They tell us a lot about the effectiveness of what we’re doing. When you measure, you can see quite clearly the results of making particular adjustments to complex systems. And we can apply the logic and principles of economics to the fight against crime. It is crucial to ask how we can achieve the most safety for the lowest cost. We have spent billions of dollars on ineffective solutions that have not delivered the safety we must demand.

    In this book, I want to do something that I concede is challenging. I want to show you our nation’s crime problem in a new way, through the eyes of a prosecutor charged with keeping a community safe. I want you to see how it really works, who is involved, what is involved, and how we can do a better job. I want to show you the distinctions that are critical to developing solutions that work. And above all, I want us all to do more than just talk tough about crime. I want us to be what I call Smart on Crime. That means taking a strategic approach to changing the status quo and short-circuiting the criminal careers of offenders much earlier, and getting offenders out of the system permanently. It is well within our reach to create a future with safer streets, lower rates of recidivism, and a stronger, better-educated workforce. It is a future that reverses the tragic waste of human potential that has become the hallmark of our prison system.

    This book is predicated on one main premise: that all Americans have the right to live in safe communities and have the ability to vigorously defend that right. In this, political ideology doesn’t matter. This is neither a liberal nor a conservative prescription for change. Getting Smart on Crime does not mean reducing sentences or punishments for crimes. It does mean using the time and resources we now spend on offenders more productively to reduce their odds of re-offending. And it means investing in comprehensive efforts to reduce the ranks of young offenders entering the criminal justice system. Former Secretary of State George Schultz, considered a conservative Republican who served in the Reagan Administration, is a San Franciscan I’ve come to know well. Our politics differ, but many of our desires are the same. Not long after I was elected District Attorney, I was at an event where he caught my eye and pulled me aside. How is it going? he asked me, very kindly. We talked for awhile, and I was moved by his support of and appreciation for the balanced approach I was trying to bring to fighting crime in San Francisco. As we finished chatting, he said to me, There are certain things that are clearly partisan, and other things that can be bipartisan, but crime is an issue that should be 100 percent nonpartisan.

    I agree with the former Secretary wholeheartedly. Crime is a non-partisan issue. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all suffer from crime. And they all want to be safe. I’ve never heard of a perpetrator asking to what party a victim is registered before he commits the crime. And today, more urgently than ever, I think all Americans want to spend our limited resources on those things that will deliver the most safety for the investment. I serve on the board of both the California District Attorney’s Association and the National District Attorney’s Association, and it’s clear to me that my colleagues have the desire to build new partnerships and share good ideas regardless of our politics. Conservative or liberal, we find common ground and work together.

    This book is not a comprehensive look at criminal law or criminal justice. It does not pretend to address a host of legitimate issues that law enforcement, civil libertarians, and victims’ advocates debate, from the complexity of sentencing to issues of due process and civil liberties. Rather, I want to zero in on the key opportunities I see for reform right now. They primarily involve dividing the crime problem into specific segments that we can target with more effective solutions. This includes better services to help victims recover from the aftermath of crime. To fully understand and address those opportunities, we first need to assess the myths that have dominated the dialogue about crime and still stand in the way of doing business differently. These are myths that lead to calcified thinking, paralysis, and a dearth of creative strategies to disrupt the cycles of crime.

    On both sides of the political aisle, we urgently need a broader vision and a willingness to innovate. For the left, that means getting past biases against law enforcement and recognizing that even low-income communities, in fact, especially low-income communities, want and deserve greater public-safety resources so that they can live free from crime. For the right, it means acknowledging that crime prevention is a key to crime fighting, and that the tools we need to ensure community safety are far more diverse than simply laws that make prison sentences longer. And on both sides, especially in times of economic crisis, a new dialogue on public safety means being willing to approach hard budget choices with an open mind and to submit all expenditures and systems to the rigorous assessment of what is truly delivering safety.

    Ultimately, my goal is to go beyond myths and partisanship and work toward a new national agenda that takes on the big picture of crime. I want to offer a playbook, if you will, for what smart crime policy really means in practice. To use a soccer analogy, until recently, we have been playing a mostly defensive game when it comes to crime. We have focused all our efforts on responding to shots at our goal. Meanwhile, a seemingly endless supply of criminals just keeps substituting in and out of the game.

    By going on the offensive with smarter, more effective programs, we can start doing something about reducing crimes before the prosecutors in my office ever suit up for court.


    The underground entrance that I use every morning when I arrive at San Francisco’s Hall of Justice feels like a real-life Bat Cave. It is a dark, cool, huge basement cavern full of law enforcement vehicles equipped with electronic devices that wink and glow in the dim light. Tires squeal and engines growl, the sounds echoing through the chamber. Police officers going in and out of their locker rooms are cast in eerie silhouettes. Every once in a while, some unfortunate citizens who have mistakenly ridden down one floor too low wander into this strange, shadowy world. Their eyes widen, and you can see actual twitches of fear on their faces. Those of us going up guide them gently back to the elevator, and then we smile when they arrive at the ground floor and rush gratefully into the light.

    In nearly twenty years as a prosecutor, the last six as the elected District Attorney of the City and County of San Francisco, I have spent a lot of time moving between the bright spotlight that shines on certain aspects of our criminal justice system and the darker places that the public doesn’t see.

    In terms of the spotlight, my constituents rightly demand to see a swift and certain response to violent and serious crimes that threaten our community’s safety and disrupt everyone’s right to a peaceful and orderly life. People see that response when we in the District Attorney’s office come in contact with the worst of human behavior, behavior that we all wish did not exist. I have prosecuted sadistic criminals who’ve committed heinous, unspeakable acts. I have spent hours poring over crime scene and autopsy photographs with coroners while we analyze the violence that has taken the life of the person in the photographs. Somebody’s daughter. Somebody’s father. Somebody’s husband. I have prosecuted the manipulative predators who commit sexual assaults on children. I have prosecuted conduct that is so destructive that my first and only priority has been to remove the perpetrator from free society for as long as humanly possible. Sometimes, forever.

    However I, along with many district attorneys and other law enforcement leaders around the nation, also grapple with a reality most people don’t see, one that has little to do with the sensational violent cases that make the headlines or become nightly news or the basis of fictional television crime shows. This reality is about the bulk of the crimes we handle—the nonviolent offenses and repeat offenders. Those of us battling crime on the front lines know that some of the crucial policies and approaches to these crimes are outdated, ineffective, and astronomically expensive. They deliver little in the way of safer communities, while they drain our public coffers of the funds we desperately need to put our communities on solid footing again, put more police on the street, solve crimes, and provide services to victims of violent crime.

    The public can no longer afford to be in the dark.

    Although the number of individuals in America’s prisons now tops two million, and we spend roughly $200 billion annually on responding to crime, our system is plagued with repeat offenders. The sad fact is that two-thirds of those released from prison or jail re-offend within two or three years. In California, we now spend more than $25 billion annually on crime—more than twice what we spend on higher education¹—but 70 percent of the 125,000 individuals released from our prisons each year are back behind bars within a couple of years.

    Many factors contributed to getting to our current situation, and there are many reasons it is very difficult to fix this problem. But the good news is, there is a way out. If we have the courage to reject the myths and the outmoded approaches of the status quo that have led us to where we are today, we can go back into the elevator, push the up button, and emerge from this darkness. And the result will be a more effective, efficient criminal justice system that gets truly tough on crime by being Smart on Crime. Smart on Crime has three pillars: maintain a relentless and intense focus on violence and the prosecution of violent criminals; identify key points in the lives of young offenders and stop them from continuing and escalating their criminal behavior; and support victims of crime and, in the process, foster crime prevention.

    The opportunity before us encourages transformation and empowerment of communities: rather than

    Enjoying the preview?
    Page 1 of 1