Home National OPINION: Kamala Harris’s past does not represent the platform she runs on

OPINION: Kamala Harris’s past does not represent the platform she runs on

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Aya Cathey, a freshman studying journalism, argues that Sen. Kamala Harris’s judicial record does not reflect the progressive criminal justice reform campaign she is running on, and that she will need to redeem herself if she becomes the vice president.

Please note that these views and opinions do not reflect those of The New Political.

Vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris’s record as a prosecutor in California has been under sharp scrutiny throughout the 2020 election season.

Harris, 55, served as San Francisco’s first female district attorney from 2004 to 2010. Following that, she was the first Black female attorney general of California from 2011 to 2016. When asked at the Democratic debate last November, she stated, “As the elected attorney general of California, I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done. And I am proud of that work.” 

I do not believe this to be true. At best, Harris backed a few programs that provided positive sentencing alternatives and yielded the status quo for a leader in her position. 

In 2015, she launched “Back on Track” as a part of the Division of Recidivism Reduction and Reentry program. It provides educational and comprehensive services to non-violent, non-sexual and non-serious felons in Los Angeles County. These former offenders, ranging from 20 to 60 years old, are equipped with tools such as housing assistance, child support services, financial literacy training and employment.  

In 2016, she initiated OpenJustice, a database that expands criminal justice transparency by providing public access to crime statistics collected by the state. This data also includes statistics on the use of force by police officers and deaths that occurred in police custody. While the visuals are user-friendly and accessible, I found finding specific data difficult and inconclusive. 

She has previously stated that she entered law enforcement to change the system from the inside. Yet, as district attorney and attorney general, she failed to prove herself as a woman fit to lead a police reform effort from the White House.

As the Democratic vice presidential candidate, she has changed her position on several key criminal justice issues. During her time in San Francisco, she embraced regressive policies such as upholding wrongful convictions and criminalizing marijuana. Now, she supports legalizing weed, bail reform and ending mandatory minimum sentencing at the federal level — all policies she rarely advocated for as attorney general.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 1,883 individuals were admitted to state prisons on marijuana offenses during the years Harris was attorney general. Another 92 admissions were made for crimes related to hashish or cannabis resin.

Despite this, those admitted during her time in office decreased exponentially from 817 marijuana-related prison entries in her first year to 137 in her last. It should be noted that, as attorney general, Harris would not have personally prosecuted marijuana cases — lower-level state attorneys would have handled those cases — but she held the authority to provide personal insight. 

Her “hands-off” approach earned her a reputation for ineffective leadership in a state with a historically high police shootings rate

Following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, protesters urged Harris to investigate a series of police shootings in San Francisco, where she had previously served as district attorney. She refused, stating, “it was not her job.” During her time as attorney general, over a dozen people died at the hands of a police officer. A majority of the officers were not convicted.

The self-proclaimed “top cop” and “progressive prosecutor” has spoken out on police misconduct issues throughout her long career in law enforcement. But when given the position to enact real change, she rarely interceded in cases involving murder committed by police officers.

During her second term as attorney general, Harris intended to make policing fairer and made her policy stances more transparent. Similar to her first term, she continued to oppose the death penalty and most cases that pursued the third strike

Yet, in 2015, when given another opportunity to make positive change, she refused to endorse Assembly Bill 86. This bill would have required her office to appoint special prosecutors to direct investigations concerning police officers’ use of deadly force.

On a more positive note, she was a part of the first state agency to require body cameras at the California Department of Justice in 2015. However, she did not support legislation to create a state-wide mandate, and that bill ultimately failed. Today, law enforcement officers who do use body-camera video must release their film no later than 45 days after an incident is reported because it is considered a state public record.

Joe Biden’s criminal justice reform plan intends to focus on “redemption and rehabilitation.” As the potential vice president of the United States, Harris has the responsibility to redeem herself.

She must prove she can learn from her past career decisions and work toward progressive criminal justice reform that reduces incarceration rates and invests in, rather than criminalizes, vulnerable communities.

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