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Fact Check: Has Kamala Harris reversed her positions on criminal justice issues?

California Sen. Kamala Harris’ positions on several criminal justice issues has evolved since she was a district attorney in San Francisco and attorney general of California.

Moderator Linsey Davis was correct when she pointed out in Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate that Harris’ new criminal justice proposal contradicts some of her prior positions.

“Among them,” Davis said, “you used to oppose the legalization of marijuana, now you don’t.”

That is true. During her 2010 run for attorney general, Harris opposed a statewide initiative to legalize recreational marijuana. In 2015, however, she came out in support of medical marijuana. And as a presidential candidate she has called for all marijuana to be legalized.

Davis also said that Harris “used to oppose the outside investigation of police shootings, now you don’t.” The reality is more nuanced.

As the Washington Post fact checker pointed out in January, Harris did not support a bill introduced in the California Assembly in 2015, while she was attorney general, that would have required an independent investigation after any use of fatal force by police. But she did not actively oppose it; instead, she declined to take a position.

She did, however, express concerns about taking away authority from local prosecutors. “I don’t think it would be good public policy to take the discretion from elected district attorneys,” Harris told the San Francisco Chronicle in late 2014.

Harris did not directly respond to either of Davis’ claims. Instead, she pointed out that she created an “initiative that was a model and became a national model around people who were arrested for drugs and giving them jobs.”

“I created one of the first in the nation trainings for police officers on the issue of racial bias,” she added.

Both of those claims are true. As San Francisco district attorney, Harris created a reentry program called Back on Track to keep young offenders, accused mostly of drug-related crimes, from re-offending. It was studied by other cities across the country as efforts to reduce recidivism gained steam.

Even longtime San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi credited Harris for “the resources she brought to bear for people who were admitted into the program,” although he pointed out to McClatchy in January that it served a small population of criminal defendants — young people with no prior criminal record — relative to the tens of thousands of people that went through the system each year.

In 2015, while serving as attorney general, Harris launched a training program to help law enforcement recognize their implicit bias towards people of color and others. Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity, told McClatchy in january that “Kamala Harris was the first attorney general to come out and say, ‘we’re doing this.”

Harris also highlighted how she “created one of the first-in-the-nation requirements that a state law enforcement agency would have to wear cameras and keep them on full time.”

It’s true that Harris mandated special agents working for the California Department of Justice to wear body cameras. However, those agents represent just a small portion of the law enforcement officers in the state, the majority of which are overseen by cities and counties. And Harris spoke out in opposition to statewide standards regulating the use of body-worn cameras by police officers in 2015, as it was being debated in California’s legislature.

“I as a general matter believe that we should invest in the ability of law enforcement leaders in specific regions and with their departments to use ... discretion to figure out what technology they are going to adopt based on needs that they have and resources that they have,” Harris told reporters in Sacramento at the time. “So, I don’t think we can have a one-size-fits-all approach to this.”

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.
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