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Kamala Harris on Crime

Democratic candidate for President; California Senator

 


Federal and state moratorium on death penalty

Kamala Harris said that there should be a federal moratorium on executions. The senator from California discussed the matter on National Public Radio, a day after Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California granted reprieves to 737 death row inmates and signed an executive order placing a moratorium on executions.

Harris was asked if there should be "a federal equivalent" to Newsom's order. She said, "Yes, I think that there should be."

Asked if no one would be executed if Harris was president, she responded, "Correct, correct."

As California's attorney general, Harris defended the state's use of the death penalty. But in a statement this week, she said it is "immoral, discriminatory, ineffective, and a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars." She noted that black and Latino defendants were more likely to be executed than white defendants, as were poor defendants with poor legal representation versus wealthier defendants with good legal representation.

Source: Associated Press on 2020 Democratic primary , Mar 14, 2019

2004: no death penalty for cop killer; 2019: apply to all

Harris says, "The symbol of our justice system is a woman with a blindfold. It is supposed to treat all equally, but the application of the death penalty--a final & irreversible punishment--has been proven to be unequally applied."

As Harris launched her presidential bid, she said she was running as a "progressive prosecutor." But she has drawn scrutiny from some liberals for "tough on crime" positions she held as a California prosecutor, with her stance on the death penalty among those issues.

As a district attorney in 2004, she drew national headlines with her decision not to seek the death penalty for the killer of a San Francisco police officer. That decision, announced days after the officer's death, enraged local law enforcement officials

However, a decade later, she appealed a judge's decision declaring California's death penalty law unconstitutional. While Harris has personally opposed the death penalty, she has said that she defended the law as a matter of professional obligation.

Source: Associated Press on 2020 Democratic primary , Mar 14, 2019

Ex-felons re-enter society, instead of broken justice system

We need our leaders to speak truth about climate change and about our broken criminal justice system.

We need an America where no mother or father has to teach their son that people may stop him or kill him because of the color of his skin.

The strength of our union is in our diversity and our unity. We see the State of our Union in the formerly incarcerated individual who re-enters society looking to contribute and in the DREAMer who pursues her future in the face of uncertainty.

Source: Democratic prebuttal to the 2019 State of the Union speech , Feb 5, 2019

Progressive prosecutor: fix broken criminal justice system

Before her 2016 victory in the Senate race, Harris made her career in law enforcement. Harris is likely to face questions about her law enforcement record, particularly after the Black Lives Matter movement and activists across the country pushed for a criminal justice overhaul. Harris's prosecutorial record has recently come under new scrutiny after a blistering opinion piece in The New York Times criticized her repeated claim that she was a "progressive prosecutor," focused on changing a broken criminal justice system from within.

Harris addressed her law enforcement background in her book. She argued it was a "false choice" to decide between supporting the police and advocating for greater scrutiny of law enforcement. She wrote, "When activists came marching & banging on the doors, I wanted to be on the other side to let them in."

Harris supported legislation that passed the Senate last year that overhauled the criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to sentencing rules.

Source: Juana Summers in Time Magazine on 2020 Presidential Hopefuls , Jan 21, 2019

Punish violent criminals, but understand they also need help

To be a progressive prosecutor is to understand that when a person takes another's life, or a child is molested, or a woman raped, the perpetrators deserve severe consequences. The job of a progressive prosecutor is to look out for the overlooked, to speak up for those whose voices aren't being heard, to see and address the causes of crime, not just their consequences. It is to recognize that not everyone needs punishment, that what many need, quite plainly, is help.
Source: The Atlantic commentary on memoir "The Truths We Hold" , Jan 11, 2019

I'm part of changing prosecutors' history of injustice

I wanted to work in the district attorney's office--I had found my calling--America has a deep and dark history of people using the power of the prosecutor as an instrument of injustice. I knew this history well--of innocent men framed, of charges brought against people of color without sufficient evidence, of prosecutors hiding information that would exonerate defendants. I grew up with these stories--so I understood my community's wariness. But history told another story too.

I knew the history of brave prosecutors who went after the Klu Klux Klan in the South. I also knew the legacy of Robert Kennedy, who, as U.S. attorney general, sent Department of Justice officials to protect the Freedom Riders in 1961.

I knew quite well that equal justice was an aspiration. I knew that the force of the law was applied unevenly, sometimes by design. But I also knew that what was wrong with the system didn't need to be an immutable fact. And I wanted to be a part of changing that.

Source: The Truths We Hold, by Kamala Harris, p.24-5 , Jan 8, 2019

Back on Track: expungement for first-time minor offenders

[As D.A., we developed a program we called] Back on Track. At the heart of the program was my belief in the power of redemption.

At the time, criminal justice policy was still trending toward things like harsher sentences or militarizing the police. More than a decade later, that attitude has, thankfully, evolved. Reentry programs like Back on Track are now part of the mainstream conversation. But in those days, I faced intensive backlash.

Though compassionate in its approach, Back on Track was intense by design. This was not a social welfare program. All of the first participants were nonviolent first-time offenders. Participants had to first plead guilty and accept the responsibility for the actions that had brought them there. We promised that if participants completed the program, we would have their charges expunged, which gave them more the reason to put in the effort. We hadn't designed a program that was about incremental improvement around the edges. It was about transformation.

Source: The Truths We Hold, by Kamala Harris, p.55-7 , Jan 8, 2019

Cash bail system favors the wealthy

One of the key issues I focused on during my first year in the Senate was the country's bail system--the process by which you can be released from jail while you await trial.

In this country, you are innocent until proven guilty. The Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits excessive bail. That's what justice is supposed to look like.

What it should not look like is the system we have in America today. The median bail in the United States is $10,000. But in American households with an income of $45,000, the median savings account balance is $2,530. The disparity is so high that roughly 9 out of 10 people who are detained can't afford to pay to get out.

By its very design, the cash bail system favors the wealthy and penalizes the poor. If you can pay cash up front, you can leave, and when your trial is over, you'll get all your money back. If you can't afford it, you either languish in jail or have to pay a bail bondsman, which costs a steep fee you will never get back.

Source: The Truths We Hold, by Kamala Harris, p. 63-4 , Jan 8, 2019

Black men pay 35% higher bail than white men

The criminal justice system punishes people for their poverty. Between 2000 and 2014, 95 percent of the growth in jail population came from people awaiting trial. This is a group of largely nonviolent defendants who haven't been proven guilty.

Whether or not someone can get bailed out of jail shouldn't be based on how much money he has in the bank. Or the color of his skin: black men pay 35 percent higher bail than white men for the same charge. Latino men pay nearly 20 percent more. This isn't the stuff of coincidences. It is systematic. And we have to change it.

In 2017, I introduced a bill in the Senate to encourage states to replace their bail systems, moving away from arbitrarily assigning cash bail and systems where a person's actual risk of danger or flight is evaluated. If someone poses a threat to the public, we should detain them. If someone is likely to flee, we should detain them. But if not, we shouldn't be in the business of charging money for liberty.

Source: The Truths We Hold, by Kamala Harris, p. 65 , Jan 8, 2019

I'm for both the police and for police accountability

We have to root out police brutality wherever we find it. What does it say about our standards of justice when police officers are so rarely held accountable for these incidents?

If there aren't serious consequences for police brutality in our justice system, what kind of a message does it send to the community? Public safety depends on public trust.

But when black and brown people are more likely to be stopped, arrested, and convicted than their white counterparts; when police departments are outfitted like military regiments; when egregious use of deadly force is not met with consequence, is it any wonder that the very credibility of these public institutions is on the line?

I say this as someone who has spent most of my career working with law enforcement. I say this as someone who has a great deal of respect for police officers. It is a false choice to suggest that you must either be for the police or for police accountability. I am for both. Most people I know are for both.

Source: The Truths We Hold, by Kamala Harris, p. 71-2 , Jan 8, 2019

2010: Ran for A.G. as anti-death-penalty D.A.

[When running for A.G. in 2000], plenty of fellow Democrats had considered me a long shot. One longtime political strategist announced that there was no way I could win, because I was "a woman running for attorney general, a woman who is a minority, a woman who is a minority, who is anti-death penalty who is DA of wacky San Francisco." Old stereotypes die hard. I was convinced that my perspective and experience made me the strongest candidate in the race, but I didn't know if the voters would agree.
Source: The Truths We Hold, by Kamala Harris, p. 83 , Jan 8, 2019

Focus on helping non-violent young offenders

Harris supported reforming California's three-strikes law, refrained from seeking life sentences for criminals who committed nonviolent "third strikes," and in 2004 instituted the Back on Track program, which put first-time offenders between ages eighteen and twenty-four into eighteen-month-long city college apprentice programs, which contributed to the city's recidivism rates dropping from 54 percent to 10 percent in six years.

"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.

Source: Jacobin Magazine on 2018 California Senate race , Aug 10, 2017

Defied pressure for death penalty for cop killer

The first test of Harris's principles came in 2004, after she was elected as San Francisco's district attorney. Harris defied a united chorus of voices--from the city's police chief and police rank and file, to Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein--calling for the death penalty for a twenty-one-year-old who killed an undercover police officer. During the officer's funeral, 2000 officers gave Feinstein a standing ovation after she criticized Harris, who was also at the funeral.
Source: Jacobin Magazine on 2018 California Senate race , Aug 10, 2017

Don't require cops to wear body cameras

Joining fellow law enforcement officials, California Attorney General Kamala Harris said she doesn't believe there should be statewide standards regulating the use of body-worn cameras by police officers: "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. I don't think we can have a one-size-fits-all approach to this," she said.

Harris, whose own department is the first statewide agency to adopt a body camera program, waded into an issue that has sparked intense debate at the Capitol. One measure, Assembly Bill 66, has undergone several revisions to permit police officers in most jurisdictions to review footage captured on the cameras before giving a report of an incident involving force.

Source: Sacramento Bee coverage of 2016 California Senate race , May 27, 2015

Acknowledge that certain communities distrust police

Use of the body-worn camera equipment was thrust into the national dialogue following a string of officer-involved incidents, many involving young African Americans. Harris has established a new training protocol for law enforcement that focuses on "implicit bias" and related issues. Harris said there needs to be broader acknowledgment that certain communities distrust law enforcement.

"We have a history in this country that we can be proud of and then there's a part of the history that we are not proud of," Harris said, adding, "But we also have to acknowledge that the relationship of trust is a reciprocal relationship, and everyone has a responsibility to be a part of leading that effort."

Source: Sacramento Bee coverage of 2016 California Senate race , May 27, 2015

Imprison violent criminals, not the non-violent

For several decades, tough laws and long sentences have created the illusion that public safety is best served when we treat all offenders the same way: arrest, convict, incarcerate, and hope they somehow learn their lesson. But the majority of prisoners are serving time for nonviolent offenses--what I call the base of the "crime pyramid." At the top of the pyramid are the most serious and violent crimes, which are committed far less often but should demand most of our attention in law enforcement. At the base of the pyramid are the vast majority of crimes committed, which are nonviolent & nonserious.

Crime is not a monolith. Instead of a one-size-fits-all justice system, [we must] focus on the top of the pyramid and avoid treating all offenders the same. This approach has three pillars: maintain a relentless focus on reducing violence and prosecuting violent criminals, identify key points in the lives of young offenders to stop the escalation of criminal behavior, and support victims of crime.

Source: Brennan Center for Justice essays, p. 37-8 , Apr 28, 2015

Make fighting transnational gangs a top priority

Attorney General Kamala Harris has made fighting transnational gangs a top priority to securing safe communities across California. Transnational gangs are a serious public safety threat in California. Their crimes--from drug dealing to gun violence to premeditated murder--cross international borders into California and reverberate throughout the state. As the state's chief law enforcement officer, public safety is Attorney General Harris' most important priority. As a result, she has dedicated law enforcement resources to fight transnational gangs operating throughout the state and to take the guns, drugs, and violence they bring to our communities.

Within her first 100 days in office, the Attorney General brought law enforcement leaders from across the state to California's border with Mexico to see firsthand the everyday problems that transnational gangs cause--the smuggling of guns, drugs and human beings across the border.

Source: 2014 Attorney General campaign website KamalaHarris.org , Nov 1, 2014

Treat crime economically: most safety for the investment

After nearly twenty years prosecuting people who rob others of their dignity and rightful claim to justice, I feel that as a society we must demand a much higher return on the enormous investment we make in our criminal justice system.

I believe that in the criminal justice system notions such as supply and demand, input and output, and looking for patterns are not abstract concepts. They tell us a lot about the effectiveness of what we're doing. When you measure, you can see quite clearly the results of making particular adjustments to complex systems. And we can apply the logic and principles of economics to fight against crime. It is crucial to ask how we can achieve the most safety for the lowest cost. We have spent billions of dollars on ineffective solutions that have not delivered the safety we must demand.

And today, more urgently than ever, I think all Americans want to spend our limited resources on those things that will deliver the most safety for the investment.

Source: Smart on Crime, by Kamala Harris, "Preface" , Oct 7, 2009

Smart on Crime: focus on violence, youth, & prevention

America's prison population now tops two million, and we spend roughly $200 billion annually on responding to crime, but our system is plagued with repeat offenders. The sad fact is that 2/3 of those released from prison or jail re-offended within 2 or 3 years. If we have the courage to reject the myths and the outmoded approaches of the status quo, the result will be a more effective, efficient criminal justice system that truly gets tough on crime by being Smart on Crime. Smart on Crime has three pillars:
  1. maintain a relentless and intense focus on violence and the prosecution of violent criminals;
  2. identify key points in the lives of young offenders and stop them from continuing and escalating their criminal behavior;
  3. and support victims of crime and, in the process, foster crime prevention.
The opportunity before us encourages empowerment of communities: rather than people feeling like helpless victims of crime, they can become educated consumers of safety.
Source: Smart on Crime, by Kamala Harris, "Introduction" , Oct 7, 2009

Crime pyramid: nonviolent offender isn't hardened criminal

When I look at the criminal justice system today, the result is best represented by a pyramid. At the very top are the very worst crimes. Only a quarter of all offenders admitted to prison are violent offenders. The largest mass of the crime pyramid is the truly staggering number of nonviolent offenders.

The problem is that we have been using only the tools best suited to combatting the offenders at the top of the pyramid, and we have been using them on the entire crime pyramid. Most nonviolent offenders are learning the wrong lesson, and in many cases, they are becoming better and more hardened criminals during their prison stays.

It's time to rock the crime pyramid.

These lower-in-the-pyramid offenders often have no job skills, and far more often than not are addicted to drugs. We quite appropriately arrest them when they offend and re-offend, but then we warehouse them in jails, which pushes them deeper into the grip of gangs and the culture of hardened criminals.

Source: Smart on Crime, by Kamala Harris, "Introduction" , Oct 7, 2009

Personally opposed to death penalty; as DA, never pursued it

While Harris has argued that she has always been personally opposed to the death penalty, some media sources questioned whether she altered her position in the run-up to election in 2010. Though she stated in her 2004 inaugural address as San Francisco's District Attorney that she would never charge the death penalty, when asked during her campaign for attorney general if there would ever be a time when she would seek the death penalty, she answered, "We take each case on a case by case basis, and I'll make decisions on each case as they arise."

The Chris Kelly campaign, in an effort to emphasize the San Francisco DA's refusal to enforce the law, released a video that shows Harris telling an astonished reporter for the local KTVU news station that "she had never seen a case that merited pursuing the death penalty during her time as District Attorney."

Source: Ballotpedia.org coverage of 2016 California Senate race , Jan 30, 2004

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Page last updated: May 02, 2019