May 13, 2018


The Two Faces of Kamala Harris: Kamala Harris has matched every one of her progressive achievements with conservative ones. (BRANKO MARCETIC, August 2017, Jacobin)

Harris's rise has produced a fiery debate among liberals and the Left. Leftists and progressives have come out in strong opposition to Harris's candidacy, with some declaring #NeverKamala and some high-profile Bernie Sanders supporters, such as National Nurses United executive director RoseAnn DeMoro, making clear their lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy. For some prominent liberals, this pushback is simply the product of virulent racism and sexism among an imagined (and non-existent) all-white, all-male, Sanders-supporting base.

While most Harris-supporting liberals wouldn't go this far, there is deep suspicion among some Democrats that opposition to Harris is motivated by similarly less-than-noble motives -- namely, that it's part of a project of poisoning the well for any potential challengers of a Bernie Sanders or Sanders-like candidacy in 2020.

In truth, there is much about Harris's long record as a public prosecutor in California -- the vast bulk of her career -- that is up for legitimate criticism by any prospective 2020 Democratic voters.

Throughout her career, Harris has been called the "female Obama." In reference to her race, this is lazy and arguably even racist. But the comparison is apt with reference to her politics. Harris has emulated the Obama approach, delivering a combination of some notable progressive victories and pleasant rhetoric and a steadfast avoidance of structural change -- paired, in some cases, with far-from-progressive policies. [...]

Much as Obama pursued policies starkly opposed to his own rhetoric, Harris's record is defined by policies that undercut her proclaimed vision.

The death penalty is a prime example. Harris deserves credit for refusing to execute a man while under tremendous pressure to do so. But despite her vaunted personal opposition, she never challenged the death penalty during her time as attorney general -- and in fact did the very opposite, actively working to keep it in existence.

When a federal judge ruled California's enforcement of the death penalty unconstitutional, Harris appealed what she called a "flawed" decision. She would continue to defend the death penalty as the case wound through the federal courts.

One might counter that it's the job of the attorney general to defend state law, regardless of her views. Yet in stark contrast, Harris refused to defend the anti-gay Proposition 8 in court, calling it "a proposition that was found by a judge to be unconstitutional."

You can see this pattern in Harris's approach to criminal justice. Today, Harris talks a good game. She attacked her rival for Boxer's senate seat for helping "fuel America's mass incarceration crisis by voting to send more kids to prison, build more prisons and ratchet up mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes." She penned an op-ed about the tragedy of female incarceration, pointing out the abuse women receive in prisons, as well as prison's economic costs to their dependents. She often says that the question of whether one should be "soft" or "tough" on crime is a false choice, and that one should instead be "smart" on crime.

Yet Harris's "smart on crime" approach seems remarkably similar to a "tough on crime" one.

"Getting Smart on Crime does not mean reducing sentences or punishments for crimes," she explains in her book. As her website outlines, "Kamala believes that we must maintain a relentless focus on reducing violence and aggressively prosecuting violent criminals." Fittingly, when she became San Francisco DA, the felony conviction rate rose from 52 percent to 67 percent in three years.

In practice, Harris defended California's uniquely cruel three-strikes law, the only one in the country which imposed life sentences for a third "strike" that was any minor felony. She urged voters to reject Proposition 66, a ballot initiative that would have reformed the harsh law by making only serious or violent felonies trigger life sentences.

Harris promised that if voters rejected the initiative, she would put forward her own, different reform. But Harris's proposal was a tepid half-measure: it simply eliminated some third strikes. Harris would later support a different ballot measure that was identical to Proposition 66, but continued to allow anyone previously convicted of murder, rape, or child molestation to receive life sentences for relatively minor third strikes (though it did also allow those with non-serious third strikes to petition for re-sentencing).

Harris's bullishness on three strikes was unusual. When she ran for attorney general, her Republican opponent actually ran to her left on the issue. In fact, four years earlier, as the Los Angeles County district attorney, he had proposed a reform of the law. Harris had not supported it.

Sure, Harris had a reputation for being one of the few prosecutors who held off on seeking life sentences for nonviolent third strikes. But this meant little when leaving the law in place meant future, more aggressive prosecutors were free to keep imposing unjust sentences.

Fortunately, eventual reforms to the law meant this never happened, though it was no thanks to Harris. In 2012 and 2014, California voters passed two ballot initiatives that gave judges more discretion in sentencing and retroactively scaled back punishment for certain low-level crimes. Harris didn't take a public position on either, claiming that taking a side would come into conflict with her duty to write the ballot text. A fellow Democrat who had preceded her as attorney general called the excuse "baloney."

Harris's commitment to harsh punitive measures wasn't limited to the three-strikes law. For all her recent concern about the incarceration of women and its economic effects, as district attorney, she successfully championed a statewide version of an anti-truancy law she had put in place in San Francisco that threatened parents of chronically truant children with as much as a $2,000 fine and a year in jail. By October 2012, two mothers had been imprisoned under the law.

"We are putting parents on notice," she said in her inaugural speech as attorney general. "If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law."

Harris's championing of the measures was an outgrowth of what she described as a passion for the issue of truancy that she had held since becoming San Francisco's district attorney. But for its part, the Los Angeles Daily News -- in an editorial that endorsed her, no less -- argued that "it was hard not to conclude that Harris chose truancy as an election-season focus because it's an issue without much political risk."

At the time, Harris was pushing for statewide data collection on truancy, which she said would inform future anti-truancy policies and was something she had first introduced in San Francisco. Yet when the Daily News asked her what this data collection in the city had shown, "she seemed not to know or have thought about it," the paper wrote.

Harris's actions in the Daniel Larsen case are particularly concerning.

The Larsen case was a travesty of justice from start to finish. In 1999, when two police officers claimed they saw Larsen, who had earlier in his life been convicted for burglary, pull a six-inch-long knife from his waistband and throw it under a car, he was sentenced to twenty-seven years to life under the three-strikes law supported by Harris.

Forget for a second that the sentence was unduly harsh for the crime in question. Police had wrongly targeted Larsen for a search in the first place, and witnesses reported that it wasn't Larsen but the man he was with who had thrown the knife. In trial, Larsen's incompetent lawyer (who would later be disbarred) didn't investigate a single witness, nor present one in trial.

Eleven years later, a judge reversed the conviction due to the lack of evidence and incompetence of Larson's attorney's. Yet two years later, Larsen was still in jail. Why? Because Harris, now a vocal opponent of mass incarceration, appealed the judge's decision on the basis that Larsen had filed his paperwork too late -- a technicality.

Tens of thousands of people petitioned Harris to release Larsen, and numerous civil rights groups similarly called on her to do the right thing. But even when he was eventually released from custody after fourteen years, Harris challenged his release, and five months later Larsen was back in court, fighting to stay out of prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Harris's concern about mass incarceration similarly failed to come up when California Governor Jerry Brown reacted to a Supreme Court order to reduce prison overcrowding by announcing a $730 million plan to move inmates to private prisons and vacant county jails. One would expect Harris may have had some words of criticism, especially as California's senate president had an alternative, better plan that focused on getting inmates mental health and drug treatment. But she was silent. San Jose's Mercury News criticized her inaction, rightly pointing out that "she wrote a book about" the issue.

Harris has also recently taken up the habit of reminding us that "the war on drugs was a failure." Yet Harris's record on drug reform while attorney general is nonexistent.

She opted not to join in other states' attempts to take marijuana off the DEA's list of most dangerous substances. When Obama raided California's medical marijuana dispensaries, Harris put out an empty statement. When asked about legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012, only a week after the New York Times endorsed national legalization and less than a year before she started warning about the failure of the war on drugs. Harris laughed. As was the case with respect to the three-strikes law, her 2014 Republican opponent ran to her left on the issue.

The limits of Harris's approach are likewise evident in her actions on police shootings. She did back a bill that required reports on officer-involved shootings to be posted publicly online and mandated bias training and that justice department agents wear body cameras. But as district attorney, she refused to hand over the names of police officers whose testimonies had led to convictions despite the officers' arrest records and histories of misconduct. As attorney general, she also opposed instituting police body cameras statewide and stood against a bill requiring her office to investigate fatal police shootings.

Members of California's Legislative Black Caucus (who are fellow Democrats) criticized her over the latter, as did Melina Abdullah, a Black Lives Matter activist and professor of pan-African studies, who commented: "This is not the time for timidity. ... Martin Luther King said if you tell black people to wait, that means never."

These are just a few of a large group of civil rights advocates and activists who criticized her on the matter, including San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi and Phelicia Jones, an organizer with the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition and a former Harris supporter, who wondered "how many more people need to die" before Harris stepped in, and accused her of "turn[ing] your back on the people who got you to where you are." Although Harris's defenders have singled out a small number of her critics who are white, complaining that it's "the same three people" criticizing of her, it's not hard to find a range of people who criticize her record, many of whom are people of color.

In fact, despite being well-placed to reshape California's criminal justice system, Harris has something of a reputation in the state as a marginal figure on the issue. As the Orange County Register put it, she was viewed by some as a "too-cautious and often calculating politician" who has avoided hot-button issues.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, told the Sacramento Bee that Harris could've been "a more vigorous advocate for full criminal justice reform" and that she was "unwilling to be big and bold." "Harris's role has not been pivotal" in reshaping the criminal justice system, the paper wrote. "The pyramid shook, but often it wasn't her doing the shaking."

Harris tried to dismiss a suit brought by California inmates over the state's use of solitary confinement, with her office insisting "there is no 'solitary confinement' in California prisons" (despite this, the case ultimately turned into a landmark settlement that struck a blow against the practice). She tried to block a transgender inmate's request for gender reassignment surgery. When a prosecuting attorney inserted a falsified confession into the transcript of a defendant's confession, committing what an appeals court called "outrageous government misconduct," Harris appealed the case, arguing that it wasn't "outrageous" because it didn't involve physical brutality.

One of the more egregious blots on Harris's record is her hostility to sex workers' rights.

Haley v. Harris would be the perfect response to the Donald debacle, an election between children of immigrants.

Posted by at May 13, 2018 8:36 AM