Kamala D. Harris

Public safety, back on track


OPINION About a year and a half ago, James was dealing drugs on a street corner in San Francisco. He wasn’t a hardened repeat offender, just a young man with little education and few prospects. He got arrested and soon faced adult felony drug charges for the first time.

California law sets the punishment for selling narcotics at up to three years in state prison. But we know that 7 out of every 10 people we send to California prisons will commit a new crime within three years of being released — the worst recidivism rate in the nation. If James ended up in state prison, there was a 70 percent chance that he would go straight back in a few years after his release, and we would actually be less safe, not more, for our trouble.

So instead of business as usual, we decided to try something new. We sent him to Back on Track, a program established by a reentry initiative created by my office in partnership with Goodwill Industries, other community service providers, and the business sector. After a year and half, Back on Track had put this former offender into the workforce and gotten him off the street.

Since we launched the initiative, more than 100 former offenders have successfully completed Back on Track. In the process, we’ve learned a lot about public safety and how to change the broken policies of the past that have crowded our prisons and jails without making us safer.

For decades, beginning with the war on drugs, there were only two brands of law enforcement: tough and soft. For decades we’ve chosen to get tough, but it’s mostly been tough on us: we’ve filled our state prisons to the breaking point with low-level offendersmostly drug offenders.

Isn’t there a smarter way to keep us safe?

Through Back on Track we’re initiating a new brand of law enforcement. Low-level drug offenders are referred to Back on Track, where they face swift sanctions for making bad choices and clear incentives for making good ones. The participants receive the basic opportunities for living crime-free that most of us take for granted: concrete job training and employment; union-based preapprenticeships in the building trades; college enrollment and help navigating financial aid; tutoring, money management, and banking instruction; child care, anger management, and parenting support. That’s the carrot, but there’s a stick too. Drug sellers must plead guilty to enter the program, and if they are rearrested or terminated from the program, they go straight to jail — no excuses.

Fewer than 10 percent of Back on Track graduates reoffend — and the program costs only $5,000 per participant, compared to $35,000 per year to house them in jail.

In October we held a graduation ceremony for Back on Track, one of four we’ve hosted since we launched the initiative. James was among the 13 young men and women who graduated. Today all 13 have full-time jobs or are working while they go to school. None have reoffended. More than 100 people currently in the program are following in their footsteps. Every day they’re teaching us that even a modest investment in people, coupled with accountability and clear guidance, can keep our community safe.

Kamala D. Harris

Kamala D. Harris is San Francisco’s district attorney.

Law enforcement’s real battles


OPINION In order to be smart on crime, law enforcement needs to make important choices about where to focus our resources. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has been making poor choices, and those choices are hitting home in San Francisco.

Recently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has conducted raids in San Francisco and around the Bay Area, rounding up immigrants at their jobs and schools, in some instances with ICE agents announcing themselves as police. These actions sow fear in the immigrant community among undocumented and documented residents alike.

The raids conducted in San Francisco present many of us in local law enforcement with a great concern. One of law enforcement’s biggest challenges to protecting crime victims in immigrant communities is encouraging them to come forward. Because immigrants are often afraid to report crimes, they can be regarded as easy targets for violent criminals and con artists.

We all suffer when crime victims are isolated from law enforcement. If victims and witnesses do not report crimes or cooperate with law enforcement, criminals remain on the streets, and all of us are put at risk. That is why my office is holding immigrant resource fairs in the Mission District and Chinatown to support immigrant rights and to make clear to community members that they are protected by San Francisco’s Sanctuary Ordinance and that my office will not report them to ICE when they come forward as witnesses or victims of crime. Rather than driving immigrants deeper into the shadows, we need to encourage those who have been victimized by crime to work with us to hold criminals accountable.

At the same time, the US Justice Department is walking down an ominous path by threatening journalists with prison time when they protect their confidential sources. In San Francisco the US attorney has held journalist Josh Wolf in prison since September 2006. Wolf should be released. For very good reasons, 31 states, including California, have shield laws upholding the rights of journalists to protect the secrecy of their sources and unpublished information. We need a federal shield law as well.

Of course, I believe crimes against police officers should be aggressively prosecuted. But I also believe that federal authorities have an obligation to respect the First Amendment. Free speech rights are critical to the work of journalists, university researchers, organized labor, and all of us in a democracy. The Justice Department should recognize the importance of protecting free speech, not only as constitutional and civil liberties issues but as smart public safety policy. Journalists play a key role in connecting us to individuals with information about crimes, and threatening the confidentiality of their sources has a chilling effect. If sources fear their confidentiality will not be protected, they will be less likely to come forward to journalists with information that could expose corruption or assist us in solving violent crimes.

Cities across the country are grappling with serious gang violence. Precious resources should be focused on addressing violence, gun crime, and major white-collar crime, not wasted on prosecuting journalists and conducting immigration raids that sweep up innocent residents, actions that hinder our efforts to build trusting relationships with vulnerable, victimized communities and keep the public safe. *

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris is the San Francisco district attorney.