Howard grad becomes California’s first female and first African American attorney general

Democrat Kamala Harris was sworn in as attorney general on Monday, becoming the first woman and first minority to hold California’s top law enforcement office.

She told hundreds of supporters that she will be an innovator who will be smart on crime as well as tough on crime.

“Being smart on crime is about doing more preventing and less reacting,” she said, promising to target chronic truancy and the underlying causes of criminal behavior as she did during two terms as San Francisco district attorney.

She pledged to send prosecutors on the road to work with county district attorneys to fight environmental crimes. She said she will join with the federal government and attorneys general from other border states in a regional approach to combatting transnational gangs that cross into Mexico.

She said she will work to reform an overcrowded, costly prison system in which seven of 10 parolees are quickly sent back behind bars. A good starting place is with female inmates, she said, because 60 percent are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes and two-thirds are mothers who have an extra incentive to turn their lives around.

About 10,000 of California’s 163,000 adult inmates are women.

“For many offenders, prison amounts to attending crime college,” Harris said in a 28-minute speech that ran longer than that delivered by new Gov. Jerry Brown earlier in the day. “Most nonviolent offenders are learning the wrong lesson.”

California should come down hard on violent offenders while finding alternative punishments for those who commit property and other crimes, she said. However, she also said the state should increase penalties for those who engage in high-tech crimes including spammers and financial predators, making sentences just as severe as for those who burglarize homes.

Harris promised to fight for the civil rights of every Californian, which includes allowing gays and lesbians to marry. She, like Brown, has said she will not intervene in a court battle over California’s voter-approved ban on gay marriages that later was thrown out by a federal judge. The case is now on appeal.

University of California, Los Angeles psychiatry professor David Farabee applauded Harris’ reform agenda, although he said the criminal justice system is tough to change. Farabee is the author of “Rethinking Rehabilitation: Why Can’t We Reform Our Criminals?”

“I think we overuse incarceration of nonviolent offenders. I think most people would prefer we have plenty of beds to incarcerate predatory offenders,” he said.

Harris, 46, the daughter of a father from Jamaica and mother from India; attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she was initiated into Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and received her Juris Doctor (JD) from University of California, Hastings College of the Law in 1989.

Her inauguration drew a diverse, standing-room only crowd that spilled from the courtyard of the California Museum for History, Women and The Arts into a neighboring auditorium. Onlookers crowded balconies and watched from windows as a traditional Indian dancer opened the ceremony and a gospel singer led a hand-clapping spiritual to close

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