The political rise of Senator Kamala Harris: From California attorney to Congress
Kicking off the publicity tour for her new memoir, The Truths We Hold, in Washington, D.C. this month, California Sen. Kamala Harris took pains to explain her choice to become a prosecutor.
It’s something she’s been doing since she took her first job at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, when family members and peers questioned why a woman of color would want to be part of a system that locked up so many men from their community.
It’s also a choice that’s dogged her as she prepares to launch a run for president in a Democratic party that has embraced the call for far-reaching changes to American justice, spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement and others. Critics have trolled her on Twitter with the hashtag #Kamalaisacop.
“As a prosecutor ... you have the power to be the voice of the most vulnerable among us,” Harris said during the Jan. 9 event at George Washington University. That includes, she emphasizes in her book, not just “victims of crimes committed” but also “victims of a broken criminal justice system.”
As she has highlighted in her book and the flurry of media appearances she has made to promote it, Harris notched some significant victories to try to make the state’s criminal justice system fairer. It is evidence, she says, of her record as a “progressive prosecutor.”
But Harris’ account also leaves out a number of more controversial episodes from her career in California, where advocates for criminal justice reform say her office was part of the problem, not the solution. Those stances suggest a more mixed record than the 54-year-old Oakland native, who is expected to announce her presidential ambitions in the coming days, has acknowledged. A crowded field of Democratic primary contenders, however, is unlikely to let her forget them.
“I don’t think the fact that someone was a prosecutor should count against them in any way,” says Marc Levin, Vice President of Criminal Justice Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a leading conservative voice for criminal justice reform. “There’s a lot of terrific prosecutors who are doing amazing work on diversion.”
But Levin said “there are a few areas where I think she did not really advocate for criminal justice reform in earlier years in those roles.”
A ‘law-and-order’ prosecutor
In her book, Harris writes that since her inauguration as San Francisco district attorney in 2004 she has “spent almost every day since working, in some way or another, on reforming the criminal justice system.”
Longtime San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi remembers it differently.
As a candidate for district attorney, Harris “had run on this platform that she was going to restore relations with the police and run a professional law office and so that was really the focus of her tenure here,” Adachi told The Bee. “She was known as a fair prosecutor,” Adachi added, but “she was definitely a law-and-order type of prosecutor.”
Adachi praised Harris’ work in starting a reentry program to keep young offenders, accused mostly of drug-related crimes, from re-offending. Harris touts the program, Back on Track, as one of her chief criminal justice reform accomplishments.
“I have to say I was skeptical in the beginning, but I was impressed by the resources she brought to bear for people who were admitted into the program,” Adachi said. He noted, however, 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.
Adachi was less complimentary of her office’s handling of a crime lab scandal that resulted in the dismissal of over 1,000 drug cases. The lab was shut down after a lead technician, who testified on behalf of prosecutors on drug cases, was found to have systematically mishandled the drug samples seized from suspects, even consuming some herself.
The San Francisco Police Department, not the district attorney’s office, ran the crime lab, and the problems that emerged there began long before Harris was elected D.A. But a San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled in 2010 that the district attorney’s office under Harris violated defendants’ constitutional rights by failing to disclose what they knew about the tainted drug evidence. Prosecutors “at the highest levels of the district attorney’s office knew that Madden was not a dependable witness at trial and that there were serious concerns regarding the crime lab,” Judge Anne-Christine Masullo wrote in her decision.
That same year, Harris won a hard-fought race for attorney general and was re-elected four years later. As the Black Lives Matter movement began to seize national attention after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, she championed several measures to bring more accountability to California law enforcement.
In her book, Harris highlights her 2015 effort to launch a training program to help law enforcement recognize their implicit bias towards people of color and others. It was one of the results of a 90-day review she ordered to address what she said at the time was “the crisis of confidence between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
“Kamala Harris was the first attorney general to come out and say, ‘we’re doing this,’” says Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity. “They had some of the best minds in California law enforcement who helped deliver the training.”
Goff also noted that Harris championed California laws to modernize the way law enforcement compiled and shared criminal justice data. “California is about to be the national leader on statewide requirements on data collection” for policing Goff said, “in part because of what she did back then.”
Harris, however, was less proactive on an issue that has been a central plank of criminal justice reform groups — relaxing stringent sentencing guidelines that have resulted in hundreds of thousands of Americans being locked up for extended periods for non-violent offenses. In 1994, California embraced one of the most punitive sentencing laws in the country when it passed a ballot initiative imposing the Three Strikes law. But the tide was beginning to turn against Three Strikes as Harris was coming up in public office.
Harris acknowledged at the time that the law was flawed.
As Harris’ Senate spokeswoman Lily Adams noted, “when she was D.A., in general she did not seek a 25 year-to-life sentence,” for a so-called third strike, “unless it was a crime of a serious or violent nature.” She also drew headlines — and intense criticism from law enforcement — for refusing to seek the death penalty for the killer of San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza, after opposing capital punishment during her campaign.
But as the San Francisco Chronicle noted in 2012, Harris largely “stayed out of politically risky fights over criminal sentencing.”
In fact, Harris was to the right of her Republican opponent on the issue in the 2010 attorney general’s race. Los Angeles D.A. Steve Cooley, whom Harris narrowly defeated, had championed a reform effort in 2006 and ran on a platform of fixing the law.
She did not take a position on the successful 2012 ballot initiative to amend the law. Adams said that Harris did did not weigh in on any state propositions when she was attorney general because she wrote the ballot language for the initiatives.
Her attorney general’s office also defended the law against a 2014 challenge in the state Supreme Court. Levin said that while it’s typical for the attorney general’s office to defend existing state laws, the attorney general is an independent elected official. “There’s nothing illegal about an attorney general saying, ‘you know what, I disagree.’”