A Pacific Standard Guide to Kamala Harris' Record on Criminal Justice Reform

The presidential candidate has an interesting record of championing reform while working within political constraints.
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Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) speaks to reporters after announcing her candidacy for president of the United States, at Howard University, her alma mater, on January 21st, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) speaks to reporters after announcing her candidacy for president of the United States, at Howard University, her alma mater, on January 21st, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

California Senator Kamala Harris officially announced on Monday that she's running for president. In recent years, she's drawn attention for her pointed questioning of President Donald Trump's nominees for big federal offices, and she's been fielding questions about whether she'll run over the past year.

But the bulk of the work she's done in her career is not as a politician, but as a prosecutor: She was California's attorney general for six years, and the city and county of San Francisco's district attorney before that. Her work in those offices offers a glimpse into the policies she might champion as a presidential candidate, as well as the political challenges she'll face. Below, a guide to Harris' biggest cases in criminal justice reform, a major theme in her career and an issue that Pacific Standard has covered extensively.

From the Beginning: Controversy Over the Death Penalty

Harris met controversy soon after her election to district attorney. She'd run on the promise to oppose the death penalty. So, when a man was charged with killing a San Francisco police officer, she almost immediately announced her office wouldn't seek a death sentence, drawing fury from rank-and-file cops and even Senator Dianne Feinstein.

A decade later, while running for attorney general, Harris said she would uphold the law around capital punishment, despite her personal objections. Once in the office, she appealed a district judge's ruling that California was cruel and unusual in its administration of capital punishment. In effect, she defended her state's use of the death penalty, to the deep disappointment of fellow death sentence opponents

A Big Early Accomplishment: Second Chances for Young Drug Offenders

In 2005, as San Francisco district attorney, Harris created Back on Track, a program aimed at preventing young, first-time, non-violent drug offenders from committing more crimes. Back on Track offered hand-picked offenders the chance to get job training and placement, and take community college classes, in return for a guilty plea and 220 hours of community service. Only 10 percent of program graduates committed another crime within two years of their release from jail or prison, compared to 53 percent of Californian drug offenders in general, according to numbers from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In 2009, the Los Angeles Times discovered that the program had funneled undocumented immigrants into jobs they couldn't legally hold. After being questioned by the Times, Harris said her office had fixed the problem.

Other cities apparently found the program promising: It later spread to Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

Record as Attorney General

In 2010, Harris was elected California's attorney general. How did she fare on criminal justice reform once she was the head of justice in the Golden State? She won praise for making state justice statistics publicly available, including arrest-related deaths.

She launched a statewide police training program aimed at reducing unconscious racial bias among officers. Research has shown that bias is real, although there's not enough research to know if training works to prevent it.

Law enforcement groups spent about $1.5 million to support Harris' opponent during her first run for attorney general in 2010, but after a concerted effort to listen to police's concerns, most groups backed her for re-election in 2014, as the Sacramento Bee reported.

As her tenure as attorney general wrapped up, activists and some members of the state's Legislative Black Caucus criticized Harris for opposing a bill that would have required her office to independently investigate all fatal police shootings, and for not saying that all police should wear body cameras. She said she thought it was best if police wore cameras, but that local departments should make the decision on their own. "Here's the bottom line: I am trying to change the system from the inside," she told the Sacramento Bee at the time. "[Activists] are trying to change the system from the outside. And together, change will occur."

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