Calif. Attorney General Kamala Harris announces new division to stop ex-prisoners from committing new crimes

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Flanked by Southern California law enforcement, state Attorney General Kamala Harris announced Wednesday she's launching a new division that will do research and help find funding for proven anti-crime and rehabilitation programs. The new initiative will be part of the California Department of Justice. Harris said it's needed because the criminal justice system simply isn't cutting it.

Her overall message was that, thus far, the system has been more focused on tradition than outcomes. She pointed out the state's notoriously high incidence of former prisoners committing new crimes within three years of release – referred to as the "recidivism" rate. Recidivism in California has hovered above 60 percent, sometimes reaching as high as 67 percent in recent years. 

"If we were talking about a business that had a failure rate of that number, we would reorganize, we would reexamine and we would guide our approach by a well proven method which asks us to think about what is the return on our investment," Harris said.

Instead, she said, the system's been all about "business as usual," meaning that it is dependent on imprisoning repeat wrongdoers, at a cost of about $47,000-per-year, per prison inmate. Harris said cutting the recidivism rate by just 10 percent could save the state $233 million annually.

The attorney general said that a new division of the state's DOJ – which will be paid for with current resources – will act as a clearing house for aggregating data and reports on innovative, successful programs around the state. DOJ staff will also help local law enforcement agencies find grants to fund such projects and develop technology to bring law enforcement into the digital age.

"You'd be shocked at how obsolete we are," Harris said.

When she was first elected district attorney in San Francisco – the "first cousin of Silicon Valley" – in 2004, two thirds of her lawyers didn't have email accounts, Harris said. San Francisco's new Police Chief Greg Suhr "has rolled out email for the first time for SFPD in 2011," she said.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca joined Harris, along with other local and state law enforcement leaders.

They said her message was particularly welcome at a time when local governments are assuming more and more responsibility for punishing and rehabilitating lower level offenders, who tend to commit new crimes after being released from custody.

"Law enforcement is coming to realize there's more to stopping crime than handcuffs," Beck said.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the division's first task, which will be reaching a uniform way of measuring recidivism in each county, will be a good start in helping counties deal with prison realignment.

"Help is on the way and we welcome it," Ridley-Thomas said.

Harris said she's currently working on staffing the office and hopes it'll be up and running shortly.

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