New Calif. AG set to play prominent political role

The first woman and minority elected to be California's top law enforcement officer promised Tuesday to push to change the way the state punishes criminals, work to protect the environment and pursue predators she said are victimizing people who have lost their jobs.

Kamala Harris, who will become attorney general in January, embraced the national leadership role she said often comes with California's size and willingness to seek new paths. Harris, who is currently San Francisco district attorney, will take over from fellow Democrat Jerry Brown, the governor-elect.

She pledged to put a new emphasis on rehabilitating and diverting criminals from prisons in an era of budgetary limits. California must end a cycle where about seven of every 10 released inmates soon winds up back behind bars, she said on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether California should sharply cut its inmate population to improve prisoners' medical and mental health care.

“This revolving door has to be shut,” Harris said in her first news conference after narrowly defeating her Republican opponent. “There has to be some leadership around that, and I intend to be that kind of leader.”

Harris said her victory is evidence that voters are willing to try a different approach to punishing criminals. Her opponent, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, had portrayed himself as tougher on crime, in part because of Harris' personal opposition to the death penalty.

Voters recognized that the state can “be tough on crime and be smart on crime,” she said, promising that as attorney general she plans nothing less than helping to reform the criminal justice system.

She promised to continue Brown's emphasis on combating global warming and enforcing environmental protections. She said she will also rally local law enforcement officials to fight financial predators she said have been targeting Californians who realized the American dream of home ownership, only to lose their jobs and then their houses.

In those areas and more, California can be a national leader, Harris said.

“As a daughter of California, I pride myself and us living in a state that has always been known as the source of change. So goes California, goes the rest of the country,” Harris said. “We are the place that has the courage to invite new approaches, always in search of innovation.”

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