2020 White House hopeful and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., released her plan to reform the criminal justice system Monday just days ahead of the third Democratic presidential debate slated to be held in Houston on Thursday.
Harris, who has been criticized for contributing to the current justice system’s defects as California’s attorney general, unveiled a sweeping platform to get ahead of repeat attacks that might be hurled at the California senator in Thursday night’s debate.
Harris’ proposal includes reforms popular in the Democratic primary such as ending the death penalty, reducing incarceration by legalizing marijuana, phasing out for-profit prisons, and getting rid of mandatory minimum sentencing. The plan also features an end to cash bail and calls for enhancing rehabilitation programs to re-integrate felons into society.
Harris also wants to eliminate disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing established by legislation sponsored by primary competitor Joe Biden, who now says the policy was a mistake.
“I know the system from the inside and out,” Harris told The New York Times in releasing her proposal. “So trust me when I say we have a problem with mass incarceration in America. Trust me when I say we have a problem with accountability. Trust me when I say we have to take the profit out of criminal justice.”
Many, however, charge that Harris helped fuel mass incarceration while serving as the attorney general of the nation’s largest state. In July’s Democratic debates, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who will be absent from the Thursday debate stage, took aim at Harris’ record in California in what became the most consequential moment of the entire two-night event.
“Sen. Harris said she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president, but I’m deeply concerned about this record.” Gabbard said.
She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations, and then laughed about it when she was asked if she’d ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that would have freed a man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.
Harris saw a significant dip in the polls following the event while Gabbard saw a slight increase, though Gabbard’s jump in support was not enough to catapult the Hawaii congresswoman into the next round of debates this week, and Harris remains a top-tier candidate.
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The plan unveiled on Monday is a sharp reversal from Harris’ record as an aggressive prosecutor. Harris opposed legislation in 2010 that would have legalized marijuana in California. In 2004, she advocated for higher cash bails for select crimes as San Francisco’s district attorney in addition to supporting a program that could have meant jail time for parents of truant children. In 2014, Harris also opposed the idea of independent investigations into police shootings.
Rolling out her proposal this week will allow Harris to better respond to critics at the debate by framing herself as a “progressive prosecutor” in line with the other candidates on the issue, a branding she has struggled to cement among Democrats skeptical of the senator’s past. Harris will now be able to point to specific policies unveiled in her proposal to combat the image of a fierce prosecutor responsible for throwing thousands in jail.
Some say that her proposal, however, as with other Democrats’ in the race, relies too much on federal involvement to solve the problem when federal intervention in the system was what created the problems present in the first place.
Derek Cohen is the director for the Center for Effective Justice and Right on Crime at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin. Cohen said Harris’ plan is “basically breeding a much larger, expansive federal role in the criminal justice system” that “doesn’t allow the flexibility for the states to figure out what works best for them.”
Cohen cited the series of bills passed by Congress in the 1980s that led to the high rates of incarceration and other issues seen in the system today, and criticized Harris’ plan for growing the federal role in the justice system and putting “money into things that haven’t been proven to work,” such as the doubling of the civil rights division in the Department of Justice.
“Many of the problems we have at the state level have risen from the federal government’s involvement,” Cohen said.
John Malcolm, a legal scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Harris’ plan is really a “hodgepodge” of proposals creating a “standard welfare proposal under the guise of having an effect on criminal justice.” Malcolm pointed out the several ideas laid out in the plan such as the Bureau of Children and Family Justice and the enhancement of criminal rehabilitation programs as examples of where Harris wants to widen the welfare state.
Malcolm said that while Harris has put forward several good ideas, such as programs to keep families together and allocating resources for mental health services, the proposal was by and large a “broad wish list of liberal criminal justice proposals” put forward to counteract her own reputation as a scorched-earth prosecutor in California.