Trending Topics

Under Kamala Harris, California’s First Black Attorney General, State Takes Lead in Criminal Justice Reform


California Attorney General Kamala Harris


The state of California is ahead of the curve on changing criminal justice policy, and its attorney general is leading the way.

In light of the killing of unarmed Black people by police throughout the U.S., members of the public have demanded reform of law enforcement policies, practices and procedures, and the way the police interact with the communities they serve.  One of the policy demands of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Campaign Zero and others has been law enforcement transparency, including data collection on police stops, arrests and use of force, as well as making the information available to the public.

Kamala Harris—the first woman, African-American and Asian-American to become attorney general of California—recently unveiled a new initiative called OpenJustice.  With OpenJustice, the California Department of Justice is making the large amounts of criminal justice data it collects available to the public.  The project consists of two parts— an open data portal which will provide downloadable raw databases to the public, and a justice dashboard that spotlights key performance metrics that are measured in the criminal just system, presented in a manner that is clear and easy to use, including interactive charts.

“What we are about to talk about is, I believe, a whole new way of doing business as government, which is adopting technology in a way that we can improve and actually increase transparency,” Harris said in a recent press conference announcing the initiative.

“Right now there has been a lot of coverage about two tragic killings– one in Texas, and another in Illinois, with two dedicated law enforcement officers who have been killed in the line of duty,” Harris said. “Let’s also then think about where we are in terms of other loss of life we’ve seen.  We have seen loss of life in Ferguson, loss of life in New York, in Texas, in South Carolina and here in California. And all of these incidents have encouraged, have influenced a national dialogue about what is the condition of the relationship of trust between law enforcement and the communities we have served,” the state attorney general added. “And I believe that part of this conversation should take place looking at the data. What are the numbers, what are the facts that we know that we can actually quantify that can help influence public policy around how we can improve these numbers and improve the situation?”

California’s top cop noted that, as someone who has worked her entire career with police officers, members of the community, those who have witnessed crime and crime victims themselves, she believes society cannot buy into “the false choice that suggests you’re on one side or another, as if there are two sides opposed to each other.”

Harris is encouraging law enforcement to become comfortable with the world of technology, using data and metrics to judge whether criminal justice policies are working, rather than relying systems that blindly adhere to tradition. Further, Harris believes in a “smart on crime” approach to criminal justice.

“And part of that theory of being smart on crime is let’s adopt the public health model that tells us if we want to deal with an epidemic–be it a health epidemic or a crime epidemic–let’s focus and put resources into prevention first,” Harris said. “If we’re dealing with it in the emergency room or the prison system, it’s too late and it’s too expensive, and it will not be effective.”

The California Department of Justice told Atlanta Blackstar that a conversation needs to take place concerning the trust between law enforcement and communities, and the attorney general is interested in building this trust.  Harris has brought law enforcement together to foster good relationships with the public, and has enlisted their support for reform.  Further, the rest of the nation looks to California, as the largest state in the U.S. and one of the world’s largest economies, for guidance on doing policing in a more community-oriented way, her office said.

The new initiative will provide data on rates of arrests and racial disparities, deaths in custody and underlying systemic issues.  More data will become available through OpenJustice, and Harris has announced her support for state legislation that would mandate police reporting of shootings or use-of-force incidents involving police, which would be incorporated into OpenJustice.  Currently, California law enforcement is only required to report on use of force cases that result in death.  In addition, there is no comprehensive national database providing such information, as the FBI maintains a voluntary, not compulsory system in which states may provide data on police killings and the use of force in shootings.

Further, under the attorney general’s leadership, the California Department of Justice has instituted a body camera policy for its agents, and has implemented the first of its kind police training course on procedural justice and implicit bias.

“All of us want to live in a community and work in a community where we can be safe,” Harris said.

Back to top