08/04/2011 07:14 am ET | Updated Oct 04, 2011

A Smart on Crime Approach to Civil Rights

Across our nation, families and communities face unprecedented challenges. Every day, millions of Americans struggle to stay in their homes in the midst of an ongoing foreclosure crisis. Our broken criminal justice system places an unsustainable burden on state budgets while failing to keep our neighborhoods safe.

And far too many of our children are being denied the basic civil right of an education. Nearly all Americans feel the impact of these challenges, but communities of color are among the hardest hit. Coming up with smart solutions to these crises must be a cornerstone of our 21st century civil rights agenda.

Among today's most pressing civil rights issues is the foreclosure crisis that continues to devastate families and neighborhoods in every state across our country.

Last year, millions of families lost their homes to foreclosure and fraud. Pensions funds have been decimated. Through the unscrupulous and possibly illegal actions of lenders and mortgage servicers, people who worked hard their entire lives and saved for retirement lost everything.But what many people don't realize is that African American and Latino homeowners represent more than half of all foreclosures, even though we're only twenty percent of homeowners. And nearly half of all victims of load modification scams are African American, Latino or Asian American. These stark facts are evidence for just how hard families and communities of color are being hit by the foreclosure crisis.

As Attorney General of the State of California, I created the first-ever Mortgage Fraud Strike Force to investigate and prosecute fraud at every step of the mortgage process -- from origination to securitization. This aggressive commitment to protecting homeowners is absolutely necessary in a state where, last year alone, over half a million families received foreclosure filings. Thousands more live in fear of losing their homes -- and it's safe to bet that many have lost their faith in the American Dream.Another of the pressing civil rights issues challenging our country is that millions of our children are denied the basic right of education.

In 2010, a staggering 600,000 elementary school students in California were chronically truant. And what is the impact of all those empty school chairs? What happens to those children who aren't in school? They wind up as high school drop-outs. Of all African American and Latino students today, fewer than half will graduate high school. It is absolutely a civil rights issue when so many African American and Latino young people end up not in college classrooms, but rather in our county jails, county emergency rooms or county morgues.We need to come together as educators, parents and law enforcement -- as a community -- to ensure our children have the support and structure they need to get to school in the morning. The success of our children, and the health and safety of our communities, depends upon such seemingly small and everyday actions.

From my perspective as California's Attorney General, I know that our criminal justice system is broken and that people of color are disproportionately represented as both victims and perpetrators.Nearly half of all homicide victims in the United States are African American; the numbers for Latino victims are just as bleak. And therefore, African Americans and Latinos have an equal stake in what I describe as a smart on crime approach to fixing the system. We need to move beyond the false choice of asking: Are we tough on crime or are we soft on crime? We need to start asking: Are we smart on crime?When we're smart on crime, we take steps to prevent crime from happening -- like keeping our kids in school. When we're smart on crime, we look beyond the one-size-fits-all solution to crime and punishment. We do more correcting and less collecting of prisoners.

As a career prosecutor, I firmly believe in severe penalties for those who commit serious and violent offenses. But the majority of those who are incarcerated in California and across the nation are non-violent offenders.

I believe that a civil and just society is one that values responsibility and accountability -- and creates opportunities for those who have paid their debt to society.Shouldn't the criminal justice policy of our great country learn some lessons from the age-old concept of redemption?Yes, the challenges we face are daunting.

But we can and must find a smarter way forward. We have an opportunity to work together to find innovative solutions to these crises. And we will succeed by building coalitions -- between African American and Latino communities and between the so-called left and right.

We will succeed by building coalitions between those who may be thinking about these issues for the first time and those who, like me, were raised as proud children of the civil rights movement.

We must do more--our children deserve no less.