Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
podcast_1400-MiddayEdition.jpg
KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Questions Raised About Sen. Kamala Harris' Criminal Justice Record

 June 5, 2019 at 10:39 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Kamala Harris is running for president as a progressive Democrat, but how does her record as a prosecutor and attorney general stack up to the progressive initiatives of today? Nicole Allen and attorney and freelance journalist who wrote about Kamala Harris is criminal justice record in the California Sunday magazine. Joins us now via Skype to talk about it. Welcome Nicole. Speaker 2: 00:21 Thank you. I'm glad to be here. Speaker 1: 00:23 The title of your story is the unknowable Kahmilah Harris. Yet Senator Harris has a long record in public service from her time as da in San Francisco and attorney general of California. So why do you think she remains unknowable? Speaker 2: 00:37 It's true, jade, that she does have a long record in public service as district attorney and attorney general, but it's really the inconsistency is between what she says and what she does or really more importantly, what she doesn't do. That I think make it a little bit difficult to know what her real priorities are. So for example, the death penalty, her stance on the death penalty as one of the best examples of this, Senator Harris has long been personally against the death, the death penalty. And one of the first issue decisions that she had to make in that role was whether or not to seek the death penalty for a man who killed the San Francisco police officer. And she chose not to seek the death penalty and it was a very big deal at the time and she faced a lot of blow back. But years later, once she had become attorney general, she chose not where she chose to defend the state's death penalty system. Speaker 2: 01:30 See, one part of the attorney general's job is to defend California laws in court, but this isn't technically a requirement. And Harris, for example, had chosen not to defend proposition eight which banned gay marriage in California because she personally opposed the law. But when she was faced with the decision of whether or not to defend California's death penalty system in 2014 which a federal judge had recently found was unconstitutional, she chose to defend it despite her stated opposition to the death penalty. So it's decisions like that that contrast with what she had said and what she continues to campaign on that I think make her a little a little bit difficult to understand. Speaker 1: 02:11 And aside from the inconsistencies that you point out there in your piece, you also point out that she refers to herself as a progressive prosecutor in her 29 team member. What can you tell us about what you think she means by this and what the term means to the Progressive Prosecutor Movement more broadly? Speaker 2: 02:28 So in the past three or four years, largely in response to the black lives matter movement and to a building bipartisan consensus around the need for criminal justice reform, there's been a wholesale rethinking of prosecution in the United States and people like Kim Foxx in Chicago and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia have successfully run as progressive prosecutors. And what they mean by this is that someone who thinks that the current criminal justice system gives prosecutors too much power. So these people identify as progressive prosecutors want to shrink the role of the prosecutor's office. They want to seek less money, bail or forego money bail altogether. They want to funnel more resources to public defenders offices, things like that. But when Harris uses the term progressive prosecutor to describe her own record, I think what she really means is a focus on crime prevention, uh, which is all well and good, but it really does not envision a smaller role for the office. And in fact, throughout her career as a prosecutor, Harris has made decisions that have traditionally, or that have actually expanded the traditional mandate of the prosecutor's office. Um, for example, her work on reducing truancy in San Francisco and later statewide in California where she actually introduced new criminal charges for parents whose kids were chronically truant. Speaker 1: 03:51 And we should mention Senator Harris, who's campaign did not speak with you for this story, but she has addressed questions that have been raised about her criminal justice record. Here she is speaking at a CNN town hall earlier this year. Speaker 3: 04:03 I've been consistent my whole career. Um, my career has been based on an understanding one that as a prosecutor, my duty was to seek and make sure that the most vulnerable and voiceless among us are protected. And that is why I have personally prosecuted violent crime that includes rape, child molestation and homicide, and I have also worked my entire career to reform the criminal justice system. Understanding to your point that it is deeply flawed and in need of repair. Speaker 1: 04:31 Now Senator Harris went on to say that there's a lot more work to do and that she wished she could have done more. Could it be that the positions that she took as a prosecutor were progressive at the time that she was da and an attorney general, but are are just not considered progressive by today's standards? Speaker 2: 04:47 I think that's a very fair point. When Senator Harris first took office as district attorney in San Francisco in 2004 2005, the Progressive Prosecutor Movement as we know it today, did not exist and her focus on crime prevention at that time was pretty novel and she did receive a lot of positive attention and praise for the way that she was thinking about. Uh, for example, antivy recidivism. She started a program called back on track in San Francisco that I'm essentially rerouted low level, first time drug offenders from criminal charges into education and counseling. So it is true that she has acknowledged the flaws in the criminal justice system and the need for reform throughout her career. However, I think her use of the term progressive prosecutor today for example in her book, which she published this past January, it really has a particular meaning today of someone who, as I was saying before, really envisions a smaller role for the prosecutor's office and I don't think that that's exactly the way that Senator Harris was thinking about her role as a prosecutor through her multiple decades of prosecutorial experience. Okay. Speaker 1: 06:00 In addition to the back on track program that you mentioned, supporters also point to her work on implicit bias training and she's been recognized for addressing a backlog in the testing of rape kits. What else do you want voters to take away from your story? Speaker 2: 06:13 The main thing to take away from my story, I'm from Senator Harris, says, multi-decade career as a prosecutor, is that while she has really made a name for herself and the Senate, uh, and has accomplished quite a bit as a senator, the vast majority of her experience in public service is as a prosecutor. And she made thousands of decisions every day that tell us a lot about what she values and what she prioritize. So while criminal justice is just one issue of many that voters should be evaluating leading up to the Democratic primary, I do think it's fair to evaluate her record on criminal justice in order to get a sense of how she makes decisions on the ground and how those decisions line up with her statements while she's campaigning. Speaker 1: 06:58 And I should mention we reached out to Senator Harris, who's campaign as well for common and did not hear back in time for this interview. I have been speaking with Nicole Allen and attorney and freelance journalists. Nicole, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you Jane.

MiddayEd_generic-new_cIVEMgQ.jpg
California Senator Kamala Harris has called herself a "progressive prosecutor." But as she seeks the Democratic presidential nomination, critics are raising questions about her image as a criminal justice reformer.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments