Harris developed the "Back on Track" program while experimenting as D.A. with techniques to steer non-violent offenders toward job training and away from the prison system. It also offered participants better access to health care, parenting classes, therapy and education -- smoothing their entry back into society.
Over the course of the six years that Harris was D.A., 650 people participated in San Francisco's "Back on Track" effort, according to staff in that city's district attorney's office who were involved in the program. But one participant, according to the Los Angeles Times, was in the US without papers, avoided prison after pleading guilty to a drug felony, went on to steal a woman's purse and then try to run her over with an SUV, fracturing her skull.
Harris told the Times that she learned undocumented immigrants were enrolled in the program when the assailant was arrested. She told the Times she had never asked how many illegal immigrants ended up in the program.
In a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed published a few days after the story, Harris defended the program, noting it had dramatically reduced recidivism within its targeted population. She said the admission of the undocumented immigrant, Alexander Izaquirre, into the program stemmed from a "flaw in the initiative" that "was fixed when it came to my attention."
As San Francisco's district attorney, Harris was also engulfed by controversy soon after taking office in 2004 when she decided not to seek the death penalty for the killer of San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza.
Then-US Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, among other members of her party, openly broke ranks with Harris and said she had made the wrong decision. The case damaged her relationship with law enforcement agencies and unions around the state, and would have long-lasting ramifications for her political career.
When she ran for state attorney general in 2010 against Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, a Republican, she received almost no support from law enforcement. Anger about the cop killer case lingered and a national Republican group ran a powerful ad against her, citing her opposition to the death penalty. She ultimately won the race by less than one percentage point, one of the closest statewide races in California history.
She immediately began traveling all over California to meet with law enforcement officials, trying to assuage concerns about her credentials. One-on-one in those meetings, she was engaging and persuasive, ultimately winning over many of the same groups that had shunned her by the time she ran for re-election in 2014. Those interpersonal skills, honed as a prosecutor, could breed success in the Senate, her long time adviser Sean Clegg told me, helping her engage colleagues on her legislative goals, which include criminal justice reform and college affordability.
"That's her secret weapon," Clegg said of her powers of persuasion.