I had the opportunity a week and a half ago to hear California Attorney General Kamala Harris speak in Sacramento before a group of the state’s journalists.
The occasion was the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s annual Government Affairs Day, which in addition to Harris featured talks by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, Assembly GOP Leader Connie Conway, R-Visalia, Senate GOP Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
The attorney general’s talk was worth the price of admission. I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek because there was no cost to attend, beyond my time – and gas to and from Sacramento.
Harris had a great deal to say, but in a staged interview setting identified four areas – “What we can do and what we should do” – in which to make government better. She talked of government by ROI, one that gets a solid return on investment. She spoke of metrics to gauge government performance. She spoke of employing various technologies – including data – to help meet stated objectives.
In short, she spoke of a government that operates more like a successful business.
First is education. Harris spoke of the intersection of education and crime. She noted that a recent report on elementary school truancy in the state found that 1 million elementary school-age children were truant last year, and that 600,000 missed more than 10 percent of the time. That costs schools across the state a combined $1 billion in lost revenue from the state, revenue which is based in large part on attendance.
California, she said, was one of four states that did not track elementary school truancy. All are big states, she said, in part to explain how this is even possible. Really? We can track high school graduation rates – low though they are in some areas of the state, even here in Solano County – but we don’t know, from a big-picture view, how many kids are missing a day of second grade?
Harris said she’s in the process of bringing schools across the state together to develop a uniform way in which to track and report truancy at the elementary school level. It’s a project that’s overdue.
“There’s a direct relationship between public education and public safety,” she said.
Harris spoke of arming parents with vital information. She said if a child is not reading at grade level by the end of third grade, that child will likely not be successful in school. She said parents need to know that. Likewise, if you improve graduation rates by 10 percent, she said, you see major crime drop 20 percent.
Next is recidivism. Harris said the state has not done enough to address what she described as the revolving door of incarceration. She spoke about the release of low-level offenders to reduce prison overcrowding. She said their release should be no surprise, albeit the timing of their release was accelerated. We know, she said, that low-level offenders will ultimately be released from prison, “and we don’t have a plan to deal with them.”
That must change.
Next was the issue of transnational gangs. Harris spoke of a visit to Imperial County to see the tunnels that cross under our border with Mexico, of how well they were developed, and how they are an indication of the type of money that’s available to criminals through trafficking of all kinds, through cyberattacks, and through theft of intellectual property – modern-day piracy. She has joined the attorneys general of other border states to work collaboratively to help address transnational gang activity that enters through those states and spreads to the rest of the country.
Finally, she spoke of technology. Harris noted that the San Francisco Police Department rolled out email in 2011. The California Department of Justice maintains 20 criminal databases. The trick, she said, is to find ways to get relevant information into the hands of officers on the streets as they make traffic stops and engage with possible criminals.
“We have a real challenge,” she said.
Harris said her office is rolling out mobile applications to help officers in the field – one step toward arming police with the information they need to help keep the rest of us safe.
We see that shift in technology here in Fairfield. Video surveillance cameras are positioned along major roadways and near known high-crime areas. That technology helped police track the movements of Suisun City teenager Genelle Conway-Allen prior to her death in February 2013 – and helped lead to the arrest of her accused killer. Fairfield police just rolled out body cameras, so the interactions officers have up close with people in the community will be caught and recorded.
It was good to hear the attorney general – a Democrat – talk of government operating similar to a business. Her emphasis on the importance of data and technology – at the school level, on the streets and into and out of our prisons – is spot-on.
Reach Managing Editor Glen Faison at 427-6925 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GlenFaison.