Kamala Harris, the 'Female Barack Obama,' Answers Her Critics

Down-ballot candidates for state office typically struggle for attention. But San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, a Democratic candidate for attorney general of California who attended Tuesday's State Dinner at the White House, has become the subject of national attention.

The Harris breakthrough came earlier this year when PBS' Gwen Ifill went on the "Late Show with David Letterman" to discuss her new book on a rising generation of black leaders and noted that San Francisco's D.A. has been compared to the president of the United States.

"She's brilliant, she's smart. They call her the female Barack Obama," Ifill told Letterman.

Extensive media coverage followed, including a recent appearance on NBC's "Today" to discuss her new book, "Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer." Watch it HERE.

Harris, whose mother is from India and whose father is from Jamaica, is in a crowded field vying to become the Democratic candidate. If she is elected, she would be California's first African-American and first woman to hold the post of attorney general.

If she succeeds in her bid to be California's top law enforcement officer, pundits have speculated that the warm and engaging Harris, who campaigned for Obama in Iowa, could run to be governor or senator, and, perhaps, even president one day.

But before any of that can happen, Harris is facing questions about Back on Track, a rehabilitation program she started in San Francisco.

Back on Track was created to help young adults who are arrested once for selling drugs. The program's purpose is to keep participants from falling back into a life of crime.

"We give them a choice," Harris has written. "They can go through a tough, year-long program that will require them to get educated, stay employed, be responsible parents, drug test, and transition to a crime-free life, or they can go to jail."

Back On Track participants plead guilty to their crime, and their sentence is deferred while they appear before a judge every two weeks for about a year. They must obtain a high-school-equivalency diploma and hold down a steady job. Fathers need to remain in good standing on their child-support payments, and everyone has to take parenting classes.

For those who meet all of these requirements, the felony charge is cleared from their records. Those who do not meet the terms of the program are automatically referred to the general criminal court and are sentenced.

Back on Track has demonstrated positive results: It has reduced the re-offense rate among participants to 10 percent in a population in which the average re-offense rate is 54 percent.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, recently signed a bill sponsored by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, a Democrat, that puts Back on Track in the penal code as a model for what the state can and should be doing to reduce recidivism.

The program has also received notice outside of California: It has been replicated in Atlanta and the National District Attorney's Association selected Back on Track as a model re-entry program.

If elected attorney general, Harris wants to encourage district attorneys throughout California to implement their own version of Back on Track in each of the state's 58 counties.

The problem for Harris, however, is that when the program started, it trained illegal immigrants for jobs they couldn't legally hold.

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