Kamala Harris’ attorney record doesn’t paint a full picture

Illustration by Jeffrey Belfield.

Brianna Scott, Opinions Editor 

My social media timeline flooded with posts praising U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., when she announced her bid Jan. 21 for the 2020 presidential election. It was full of people excited that someone of her essence could replace President Donald Trump.

Since her announcement, Harris’ record as California’s former attorney general and San Francisco district attorney has come under scrutiny. It is easy to judge Harris based on what she did as an attorney, but diving beyond the surface reveals more.

Harris’ past criminal justice reform rulings have caused me to pause rather than have a knee-jerk supportive reaction. As someone who advocates for prison reform and has seen how incarceration disproportionately affects black and brown folks, specifically children, I found myself confused and wary of Harris.

In 2004, Harris didn’t seek the death penalty against a man accused of killing a police officer. But a decade later, Harris defended capital punishment in California. Black people make up 13 percent of the population, but 42 percent of people on death row in state prisons are black and account for 35 percent of those executed, according to the NAACP.

Harris also supported a new California truancy law in 2011, which states parents of kids who are chronically absent from school can be found guilty of a misdemeanor and face a fine up to $2,000 as well as a year of incarceration, depending on the circumstance. Truancy disproportionately affects black and brown families and is a factor in the school-to-prison-pipeline, according to The Washington Informer, all of which Harris knows.

“We know chronic truancy leads to dropping out, which dramatically increases the odds that a young person will become either a perpetrator or a victim of crime,” Harris said in her inaugural speech back in 2011.

Harris did implement the first statewide implicit bias and procedural justice training in the U.S. Open Justice is an initiative that advances Harris’ “Smart on Crime” approach. The website provides data on arrest rates, in-custody and arrest-related deaths and law enforcement officers killed or assaulted.

In 2015, Harris initiated “Back on Track – Los Angeles,” is a program meant to reduce recidivism rates. The program “helps former offenders reintegrate into their communities and assists them with housing needs, child support services, financial literacy training, and employment,” according to its website.

But Harris did not take a stance on a ballot that reduced certain low-level felonies to misdemeanors.

When researching Harris, my negative reaction toward her was instantaneous — her rulings and views contradicted each other.

Until I realized how naive it was to believe this was not a nuanced situation.

The job of an attorney general is to fight passionately and aggressively uphold the laws of their state and the nation. An attorney general is the top legal officer of their state. They don’t necessarily always write the laws or legislation that they are required to uphold. To put it bluntly, attorneys general are essentially law enforcement.

Our criminal justice system isn’t broken. It’s working the way it was always intended to, which makes reforming it difficult because people can’t see the way the structures are set up. The system has always been designed to disproportionately affect people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ individuals, women, criminals and those in poverty.

Harris has referenced the “false choice” dilemma in many tweets and in her memoir, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey.”

“It is a false choice to suggest you must either be for the police or for police accountability,” Harris said. “I am for both. Most people I know are for both. Let’s speak some truth about that, too.”

The “false choice” is a type of informal fallacy where we think a situation presented is “either/or” but in reality, there is another option.

It’s a false choice to think that attorneys general can only make decisions that align with their beliefs or make no decision at all. They have to answer difficult questions with answers they don’t believe in.

It’s a false choice to think you must either support all of Harris’ decisions or not support her at all. You can support some, but not all.

This is a nuanced situation and we must treat it as such. We should not ignore Harris’ rulings as an attorney general but we should consider why she ruled the way she did. Being a politician is a game and you have to play the game right — even when it means people will hate for you it.

I can’t say for certain how I feel about Harris, I feel quite blasé after researching her. I’m tired of the mantra that we must “vote for the lesser of two evils” because it is used as a “get out of jail” card for politicians who have made problematic decisions.  

It’s a pipe dream to expect politicians, lawyers, judges, and prosecutors to be able to do what is “just” when the law itself isn’t always fair. Once you enter into historically-biased power structures, you are on a completely different playing field.

Harris has spoken out in response to recent backlash over her decisions on criminal justice reform.

“The bottom line is the buck stops with me and I take full responsibility for what my office did,” she said. “There are cases … where there were folks that made a decision in my office and they had not consulted me and I wish they had.”

This seems like a half-attempt to take responsibility while also shifting the blame. With power comes difficult decisions that are always going to affect people negatively. We always have a choice at the end of the day. For Harris, those choices could have jeopardized her career.

If I’m going to question what Harris did as an attorney general, who is required to uphold the law, then I also must question why the laws are set up the way they are.

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham Jail he said, “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

We must be critical of our government and the way it is designed.

Accountability is one of my favorite words because it scares people. I have no idea when the word garnered such a negative connotation. Holding people responsible for their actions does not mean we no longer can support them, it just means we are being critical.

We should continue to be critical of Harris and anyone else who runs for election in 2020.

If we vote blindly without critique and research, then we are insulting our culture of democracy.

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