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California Attorney General Kamala Harris Gives Public Talk At Stanford Law School

Publication Date: 
October 31, 2011
Stanford University News
Sharon Driscoll

Professor Joan Petersilia is quoted by Sharon Driscoll in the below Stanford University News article on California Attorney General Kamala Harris and her commitment to "science and scholarship."

Kamala Harris seemed an unlikely winner in last year's closely contested race for California Attorney General, despite her years of experience as a prosecutor in Alameda County and as San Francisco's District Attorney. Introducing Harris before a public talk at Stanford Law School last Thursday, law Professor Joan Petersilia recounted her dismay when watching coverage of the race.

"The headlines were unusual, with things like 'Kamala Harris coming out for rehabilitation,' and 'Kamala Harris worried about mass incarceration and the impact on minority communities,' so not the tough on crime rhetoric we've come to expect," said Petersilia. "I thought, 'She's going to change her tune when she sees how tough this race is.'" But Harris didn't take the bait – and she won.


The idea for a class came about when Harris made that call to Petersilia, inviting her to study the state's recidivism problem. Petersilia had to beg off, citing her teaching commitments, but suggested that the project be made into a seminar. Harris agreed. When AB 109 passed, the class narrowed in focus and also took on greater urgency: The new legislation, signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown last spring and enacted this month, shifts responsibility for certain lower-level offenders from the state to county authority in what is called "realignment." But it does not include funding for comprehensive research into how each of California's 58 counties will address the dramatic shift in responsibility. The class, Advanced Seminar on Criminal Law & Public Policy: A Research Practicum, which began in September, will fill some of that gap by studying one county's efforts to implement the legislation, providing what Petersilia and Harris hope will be a model for best practices.

"Her commitment to science and scholarship is so unique for an elected official. In my 30 years of studying this area I don't think I've ever met anyone who is so true to the truth and the data," said Petersilia, who has immersed herself in issues related to prison recidivism and realignment for the best part of 25 years. An empiricist who was the director of the Criminal Justice Program at the RAND Corporation, her expertise is politically neutral and highly sought. She has served as a special adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, helping to reorganize adult corrections and working with the California State Legislature to implement prison and parole reform (she was standing next to him at the signing ceremony for AB 900, which authorized nearly $8 billion for prison construction and rehabilitation initiatives). She chaired Schwarzenegger's Rehabilitation Strike Team and also was co-chair of California's expert panel on offender rehabilitation programs. Brown also quickly sought her advice after taking office.