Drawing on her experience as a prosecutor, as California’s attorney general and as a black woman, Sen. Kamala Harris unveiled a comprehensive criminal justice plan on Monday that pledges to shift away from mass incarceration and work toward a more equitable system, while promoting public safety and law enforcement accountability.
The plan contains many core ideas shared by the other 2020 Democratic hopefuls: ending mandatory minimums on the federal level, legalizing marijuana, ending the death penalty, promoting rehabilitation, and ending the use of private prisons. While she doesn’t mention the 1994 crime bill, Harris’ plan essentially unravels legislation then-Sen. Joe Biden helped bring into law, pledging a more holistic approach to crime prevention and policing.
Criticism of Harris’s prosecutorial background has followed the California senator since announcing her candidacy — coming to a climax in the second Democratic debate when Tulsi Gabbard leveled mainly unfounded attacks on Harris.
“My entire career has been spent making needed reforms and fighting for those who too often are voiceless — from young people arrested for the first time and getting them jobs instead of jail, to grieving black mothers who wanted justice for their child’s murder as the system ignored their pain,” said Harris in a statement accompanying the policy release. “This plan uses my experience and unique capability to root out failures within the justice system. As president I’ll fix this broken system to make it fairer and more accountable for communities across the country.”
In the area of police reform, Harris reflects her knowledge of decades in the judicial trenches, offering specific paths forward. Harris notes the majority of criminal justice policy occurs at the state and local level, but that the president can effect change by incentivizing behavior through federal funding.
Harris requires police data reporting as a condition of federal funds, an acknowledgment to the poor data collection of use of force by police departments across the country. Her plan offers state block grants for analysis of that data and more federal money to provide use of force training.
Because the tens of thousands of local police departments vary in safety standards and regulations, Harris seeks to create an independent National Police Systems Review Board, an agency that would operate similarly to the National Transportation Safety Board. The agency would collect data and review police shootings, “issuing recommendations and implementing safety standards based on evidence revealed in these reviews.”
“The policing profession is so disjointed, it depends on your city or state,” said Ronald Davis, former East Palo Alto Chief of Police and director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services under the Obama administration. “She’s focusing on national best practices instead of nationalizing the police, helping to shape best practices so the beat cop has the best thinking and research of the day. It’s more than a campaign document. This is a governing document. It’s a how-to.”
Harris’ plan also aims to help lower-income defendants and children. Harris seeks to end cash bail and spend on policies that would aim to curtail mass incarceration, like job training and medical and mental health care. Her plan establishes a Bureau of Children and Family Justice that seeks to prevent children from entering the criminal system in the first place.
In the courtroom, Harris wants a more level playing field between prosecutor and public defender, creating a $250 million grant to fund and offer pay parity to public defenders and impose workload limits.
Phillip Goff at the Center for Policing Equity called Harris’ plan “bold and realistic.” Goff noted Harris’ experience is reflected in her policy, saying “she already speaks the language” of both law enforcement and prosecutors.
“I won’t make excuses for some of the stuff I disagree with,” in regard to her entire record, said Goff. “But I will say that if we want someone who is experienced enough to be effective at reform, we’re going to end up with someone who has dirt on her clothes and maybe blood on the hands, because that’s what it takes. It is hard to get someone who is experienced and pure.”
An emphasis on the future and not her past
By revealing Harris’ new criminal justice reform plan this week, her aides hope this will help turn the tables on a part of Harris’ resume that has drawn criticism from some Democrats ahead of the next presidential debate. While Harris has tried to use her career as a prosecutor as a central strength of her candidacy, her aides privately acknowledge that more needed to be done to both inform voters about her record and defend Harris against criticism, some of which they view as unfair.
In the second presidential debate, Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat, accused Harris of putting “over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations” and keeping people in prison beyond their prison sentences, both critiques that were later deemed by fact checkers to be false and misleading.
Responding to Gabbard, Harris repeatedly said she was “proud” of various aspects of her record, but some advisers recognized her answer did not adequately correct the record about her prosecutor tenure, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Aides have also bristled at Gabbard’s attacks but argued there simply was not adequate time in the debate format to answer them. But some of Harris’ aides also privately acknowledge that she was not fully prepared to defend herself against those attacks during the debate.
Harris has addressed her record as a prosecutor on multiple occasions in the past, including in a speech in South Carolina in June. Multiple advisers with knowledge of the discussions say that within the campaign, some aides have pushed for Harris to do more, including surfacing specific stories and examples of her work as California’s attorney general and the district attorney for San Francisco in an effort to blunt the criticism that Harris was overly harsh. Aides also believe that revealing her comprehensive criminal justice reform proposal will help reframe the conversation more around the future and less on the past.
“There’s agreement that she needs to lean into it,” one adviser with direct knowledge of the discussions said.
Harris’ career as a prosecutor has become a focus of her case to voters. She has argued that she can prosecute the case against four more years of President Donald Trump in a general election and also address a slew of other issues, including most recently, climate change by prosecuting corporate bad actors.
This latest move comes at a critical time for Harris. Harris’ poll numbers saw a brief spike following a strong performance in the first presidential debate when she went after Joe Biden on issues of race. But her numbers have since plateaued, placing her in fourth place in most polls.
Rashad Robinson, executive director of the Color of Change, who has met with Harris on this issue multiple times, said that her ability to address these questions can help her overcome some concerns voters might have about her electability.
“The public just needs a reckoning of what her evolution has looked like,” Robinson said. “People are forgiving to a certain extent.”
But he added that Harris needs to do more to explain her vision for addressing the systemic problems with the criminal justice system and the role she played in it.
“People need an explanation and an analysis of what was happening at the time and where she is now,” Robinson. “Because that will give us a framework for how you will address future challenges.”
Accompanying the release of Harris’ plan is a 30-minute pre-produced video from the campaign. The video features a conversation with Salon’s Editor-at-large D. Watkins, social justice advocate Jamira Burley, the Center for Policing Equity’s Goff, and CNN commentator Angela Rye about the major criminal justice issues disproportionately affecting the black community, from policing, mass incarceration to social service programs.
A Harris campaign aide says the video was produced so voters could hear directly from the senator, reflecting her depth of knowledge on criminal justice. The video, says the aide, allows Harris to reach voters where they are online, unfiltered through analysis or media, in conversation with advocates who have worked to affect this issue in their own careers.
The conversation is congenial and does not bring up the criticism that Harris has faced since the launch of her presidential campaign.
The video shares Harris’ central argument to critics. “I can walk in a room and never, no one can ever question my background and my commitment to public safety,” Harris says on the video. On the reforms in her criminal justice plan, she said, “No one can ever question my credibility on it.”
Harris’s final words on the video talk about the power of the President’s words. “When I hold that microphone on this issue, there will be an ability, along with the background and credibility, to influence perspective about how the system actually needs to function to do the work of justice. Period.”
‘It’s not unfounded’
As Harris attempts to reset the narrative around her criminal justice record, the notion that some voters still feel uneasiness and a lack of knowledge around her past as a prosecutor was evident at voter events in New Hampshire over the weekend.
Heath Howard, a 19-year-old student from Stratford, New Hampshire, is considering her candidacy but still has questions about her background.
“That’s definitely one of the more concerning reasons for me, why she’s not higher on my list. I think that her record as a prosecutor just is kind of shaky,” he told CNN in an interview in Manchester on Saturday.
His sentiment was echoed by Madeline Bernardeau, another 19-year-old college student.
“She’s not my candidate for a number of reasons,” Bernardeau told CNN. “I think her criminal background gives me more pause in terms of her history as a prosecutor in California, her record with marijuana and charges like that,” and juxtaposed the senator with her preferred candidate Cory Booker. “(Booker) understands that nonviolent drug crimes are not things people should be incarcerated for.”
Both students admitted they could learn more about her record but argued the criticism she faces is fair game.
“It’s not unfounded. I think there is truth to a lot of what has been said as far as I read,” Bernardeau said. “I want to vote on someone who I know and trust I can believe in.”
Still, there are voters who chalk Harris’ record up to what was necessary at the time — an argument the candidate herself has made.
Jeffrey Jones, an undecided 68-year-old retired IT executive from Pennsylvania, said as the chief prosecutor in California, she had “a job to do.”
“I think if she didn’t do the job, she wouldn’t be on stage today. I think she did her job very well in California so I don’t hold anything against her.”
Jones and his wife came to Harris’ Friday Londonderry town hall in New Hampshire because they’re in between the California Democrat and Biden.
Another supporter at Granite State event, 22-year-old Jessica Sanchez, called it “unfortunate” that Harris’ record is being used against her.
“I know a big thing has been her putting people away for minor drug charges,” said Sanchez in an interview Friday with CNN. The student and nonprofit worker didn’t vote for marijuana legalization in Massachusetts in 2016, so it’s not an issue for her.
“I do understand how her past can be a problem for those who support that kind of stuff,” Sanchez said. “[Harris] keeps talking about that she ‘had to do’ what she had to do, that was her role at the time and that’s what she felt was right. I 100% believe that she made the right decisions.”
Michon Martin, who worked as an assistant district attorney when Harris was San Francisco’s DA, says Harris’ 20 plus years “trying to improve the system from the inside” isn’t understood by the public. “Back then, imagine this woman of color, standing before us newbie attorneys, bold enough to reimagine criminal justice. We all leaned forward and said, this is different.”
Martin worked in San Francisco’s first child assault unit in the DA’s office, a unit established by Harris. Martin sees Harris’ crime plan, which she calls “expansive,” as a reflection of those early days, including lessons learned along her career path. “You learn as you go and get so much better.”