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

San Francisco DA trained illegal immigrants for jobs they couldn't legally hold.

November 25, 2009, 4:59 PM

Nov. 26, 2009 -- 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.

Harris first learned that illegal immigrants were training for jobs in Back on Track when Alexander Izaguirre, a program participant, was arrested last year for allegedly assaulting Amanda Kiefer in the Pacific Heights section of San Francisco.

Kiefer, who was walking to a restaurant with a friend when the alleged purse-snatching and attempted SUV rundown occurred, had her skull fractured as a result of the incident.

Earlier this year, Kiefer told the Los Angeles Times: "If they've committed crimes and they're not citizens, then why are they here? Why haven't they been deported?"

When Harris sat down with ABC News on Tuesday in the lobby of Washington's St. Regis Hotel to discuss her run for attorney general, she was asked to respond to the deportation question posed by Kiefer.

"Innovation by its very nature and definition means that you are doing something different from how it has been done before," Harris said. "And necessarily, then, there is some assumption of risk, because doing something differently than it's been done means invariably, even with the best of intentions, we'll find a glitch. There will be something that becomes obvious in hindsight that was a flaw in the design and then you fix it.

"In that case, the Izaguirre case, that became a very obvious flaw in the design of Back on Track," Harris said. "I imagined many scenarios, didn't figure that one out until we realized that this was a flaw and we fixed it."

Asked to identify the flaw, Harris said, "The flaw was that we hadn't imagined that there would be undocumented immigrants in the program. So we didn't set up a system for checking them."

Asked if her office was relying on the participating employers to check immigration status, Harris said: "Frankly, it was something that was just not -- we imagined many scenarios from the parenting needs of these individuals to the need they have and the responsibility they have to pay taxes to housing.

"We vetted out violent offenders. We vetted out offenders who had any kind of prior conviction," she said. "We imagined many different scenarios. But frankly, I think a lot of public policy -- be it good or not -- is framed out of what should be. And public policy is not necessarily designed to cover the abuses.

"The abuses we'll take care of, if that makes sense," she said. "So what happened is that we learned that there was an abuse of this initiative by someone who was not entitled to benefit from it and we fixed that."

Harris said the program has now built monitors into the system to check legal status. Participants are now asked for "everything from Social Security cards to whatever it is that they can produce" to show that they are in the United States legally.

"No one who is an undocumented immigrant should benefit from this program," Harris said. "This initiative is designed to make sure that the participant will gain legal employment and the undocumented immigrant may not obtain legal employment in our country."

Apart from the question of whether illegal immigrants are allowed to participate in the Back on Track program, Harris was asked what happens in San Francisco if someone who is charged with a crime is not legally in the United States.

"The law is that a custodial entity has a responsibility to check for immigration status, so [that means] the police department, for example, the sheriff's department. The district attorney's office is not a custodial agency," she said.

Beyond facing questions about why the program was not initially screening participants for legal status, Harris is also being asked by state Sen. Tom Harman, the lone Republican in the race for attorney general, to explain why the program is being directed to drug sellers as opposed to mere users.

"This is not intended to focus on the user at all. That's not the design. There's another program for the user, that's called Drug Court," Harris said.

Harris is also being criticized by Harman for expunging the criminal records of participants who successfully make it through the program.

"I'm not going to respond to him directly," Harris said. "But I will tell you ... my slogan of being 'smart on crime' is born out of the idea that we have to stop suggesting that there are only two categories that you're in when you advocate for criminal justice policy: Either you're 'soft on crime' or you're 'tough on crime.' That's a very simplistic analysis.

"Instead, I think we should ask: Are we being 'smart on crime,' which means being tough, to be sure, on serious and violent crime, but also being tough on the underlying causes of crime," she said. "For certain kinds of crimes, it is smarter to divert that person permanently out of the criminal justice system than to allow them to continue to cycle through."

At the conclusion of the interview, Harris indicated that she intends to continue pushing for reform of the criminal justice system despite the attendant political risks.

"One impediment to meaningful criminal justice reform is that the nightmare for any one of us as a career prosecutor is that we'll make a decision today about an offender that is not throwing the book at them and then tomorrow that offender will go out and commit a heinous crime," Harris said. "[T]his can be politically a deterrent for other elected leaders to take on innovation, because there is a political risk that's associated with that. And the political risk is that some knucklehead will go out and commit a heinous crime."

ABC News' Brittany Crockett contributed to this report.