Law & the Courts

Kamala Harris Is Terrible on Criminal Justice

Kamala Harris, then the attorney general of California, speaking in 2011 (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)
Her record as a prosecutor isn’t as “progressive” as she’d have you believe.

Democratic senator Kamala Harris has announced that she is throwing her hat in the ring to run for president in 2020 — so now is as good a time as any to remind everyone of her terrible record on criminal justice.

Thankfully, criminal-justice reform has become a bit of a popular issue these days among both Democrats and Republicans. This has allowed for some steps in the right direction toward fixing our unnecessarily punitive justice system, such as the passage of the FIRST STEP Act. As a civil libertarian, it’s my opinion that we still have a long way to go — and putting Kamala Harris in the White House would not be a step in the right direction.

Although Harris seems to have a pretty good reputation among most liberals, her record on criminal justice issues is a dismal one. As a recent piece from Lara Bazelon in the New York Times details, Harris was far from the “progressive prosecutor” that she has tried to rebrand herself as in recent days.

For example: When Harris was San Francisco’s district attorney in 2010, she was condemned by a judge for staying silent about a police laboratory technician who had been accused of stealing drugs and “intentionally sabotaging” her work. She could have and should have warned defense lawyers about this technician’s wrongdoings, but she chose not to — and even went so far as to contest the condemnation, claiming that the judge had done so only out of bias because her husband was a defense attorney. Harris eventually lost this argument, and more than 600 cases that had been handled by the technician were tossed out.

As Bazelon notes, Harris’ mishandling of that technician was far from the only time she failed to be a hero for the accused. In 2014, she refused to take a position on Proposition 47 — a voter-approved measure that reduced some low-level felonies to misdemeanors. That same year, she laughed when a reporter asked her if she would support the legalization of medical marijuana. In fact, she isn’t on record reversing her opinion on marijuana and supporting legalization until just last year, which is pretty late in the game.

Also in 2014, the California attorney general’s office (during Harris’s time as attorney general) opposed the release of nonviolent inmates on the grounds that “prisons would lose an important labor pool.” To be fair, Harris later claimed that she did not know about this and was “shocked” to read about it in the newspaper, but it still supports the narrative that her office was not quite as progressive as she’d probably like you to believe.

Oh, and there’s more. Within the past year, we may have seen Harris tweeting messages of support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but in 2015, she actually “opposed a bill requiring her office to investigate shootings involving officers,” according to Bazelon, who added that Harris had also “refused to support statewide standards regulating the use of body-worn cameras by police officers.” So much for her record on officer accountability.

Harris is also hardly a progressive when it comes to sex workers and their rights. In fact, as Elizabeth Nolan Brown points out in a piece for Reason, Harris has “at least a decade” of fighting “against campaigns to decriminalize consensual adult prostitution in California, ignoring the ardent lobbying of sex workers, criminal justice reformers, and human rights advocates.”

Bazelon also did a fairly nice roundup of all of the times that Harris was found arguing in favor of convictions that any reasonable person might be concerned had been wrongfully wrought. For example: the case of George Gage, who was convicted of sexually abusing his stepdaughter based almost entirely on the stepdaughter’s own testimony. Later, the judge found “that the prosecutor had unlawfully held back potentially exculpatory evidence, including medical reports indicating that the stepdaughter” had repeatedly lied to law enforcement. When the case reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco in 2015, Harris’s prosecutors still continued to support the conviction. Harris’s team won; Gage is still in prison.

Harris also pushed to uphold a 28-year-to-life sentence for a man named Daniel Larsen for possession of a concealed weapon, despite the fact that, as Bazelon writes, “there was compelling evidence of his innocence” and “his trial lawyer was incompetent.” (Thankfully, she lost this one.) There was also the case of Johnny Baca, who had been convicted of murder “even though judges found a prosecutor presented false testimony at the trial.” Despite the clear issues with his conviction, Harris still supported it initially, reversing her course only after the injustice had gained national attention. Something similar happened with Kevin Cooper, an inmate on death row whose trial had been influenced, Bazelon writes, “by racism and corruption.” She initially opposed his bid to prove his innocence through DNA testing, relenting only after his case too went viral. (Thankfully, outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown approved the bid for this testing in December of last year.)

As a prosecutor, Harris had the power to stand on the side of justice for the accused — and she repeatedly declined to take that stance. Instead, she routinely relied on things like legal technicalities in an attempt to uphold convictions that most people would be concerned had been handed out wrongfully. This is not progressive; this is draconian. In fact, it seems that sometimes, the only thing that could get her to take the sides of the accused — no matter how much the actual evidence may have pointed to their innocence — was when pressure from the public threatened to damage her reputation if she didn’t.

To be fair, Harris wasn’t all bad. As Bazelon notes, she did do some positive things for criminal-justice reform, such as starting a program that allowed first-time nonviolent offenders to have their charges dismissed if they went through vocational training. Her mistakes, however, are far too numerous to ignore. If she wants to gain the support of people who have progressive views on criminal-justice reform, she should have to address these past mistakes — and, if need be, do what she can to rectify them.

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