The two candidates for Attorney General, a position which would provide its holder with plenty of influence over criminal justice policy in general and incarceration rates in California in particular, are Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris. The Chron summarized the candidates' exchange in a televised debate. Unsurprisingly, the media has portrayed Cooley's traditional "tough on crime" approach as clashing with Harris' "smart on crime" innovations.
Lest the death penalty issue, which is a bone of contention between the candidates, throw you off, Harris is a tough law enforcer, far from being soft on crime. Moreover, while her overall approach to criminal justice emphasizes evidence-based measures and tackling roots rather than symptoms, there have been some gaffes. This year, for example, we've seen Harris endorse some measures that we found questionable, such as the (unenforceable) prohibition for sex offenders to join social networking websites and the truancy courts. While the latter measure tackles a phenomenon closely associated with crime rates, there is little evidence that scolding parents in court will do the trick. Nevertheless, Harris has proven to be a thoughtful, impartial, collaborative policymaker, who among other things endorses San Francisco's Clean Slate program--a rare collaboration between the Sheriff's department, the DA's office and the PD's office.
Cooley's criminal justice policy does appear to be more traditional, but the L.A. District Attorney's office has some community collaboration programs (including one for monitoring truancy!). It also devotes energy to combating gang activity. His campaign seems to include, so far, some of the familiar symbolic tactics, such as using victims as symbols of fear and highlighting controversial issues such as the death penalty to his advantage.