Ever since Kamala Harris announced her 2020 presidential run, there was a jolt of excitement for those tired of the current White House administration and for those who were just ready to see a Black woman take her place in the lineup. But, there was also a lot of side-eyeing, so to speak. Harris, a life-long attorney, has a storied history that is relatively easy to follow, and some people, particularly progressive Democrats, have been less than impressed with her record during the “tough on crime” era.
That history confronted her directly at a CNN town hall event in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday.
“You have positioned yourself as in line with the progressive movement to make criminal justice less punitive and racist, yet your record as a prosecutor shows that you embraced the tough-on-crime mentality,” Riley Fink, a senior at Drake University, stated when given the floor. “You’ve defended California’s death penalty, and as California’s Attorney General your office opposed the release of non-violent prisoners and violated the constitutional rights of various drug defendants.”
“How do you reconcile your contradictory past with what you claim to support today?” Fink asked.
Harris, for her part, seemed to come prepared for the question, claiming, “I’ve been consistent my whole career.”
Although Harris seemed to never directly answer Fink’s question, she highlighted parts of her career, emphasizing her desire to protect those who are most vulnerable.
“My career has been based on an understanding, one, that as a prosecutor my duty was to seek and make sure that the most vulnerable and voiceless among us are protected, and that is why I have personally prosecuted violent crimes that include rape, child molestation, and homicide,” Harris said
“I have also worked my entire career to reform the criminal justice system, understanding to your point, that it is deeply flawed and in need of repair,” she added. “Which is why as Attorney General, for example, I led the [California] Department of Justice…and implemented the first of its kind in the nation implicit bias and procedural justice training for police officers.”
Harris also touted her efforts as Attorney General in creating the “first in the nation” open data initiative in an effort to give transparency around deaths in custody, arrest rates by race and making that information public.
“I created an initiative back when I was District Attorney…and this is the 90s and the early 2000s…back when there was a tough on crime mentality, and I created one of the first in the nation initiatives that was focused on reentering former offenders by getting them jobs and training and counseling,” she added, further defending her record.
Harris directly addressed her stance on the death penalty, insisting, “I am personally opposed to the death penalty, I have always been opposed to the death penalty and that’s not going to change. It is a flawed system, it is applied unequally based on race and based on income. It is something that we know is flawed in that we know it is a final judgment but we have seen many cases where DNA has proven that the person that was sentenced to death was not in fact guilty. And it is something that frankly costs the taxpayers of this country a lot of money.”
Harris acknowledged toward the end of her comments that there is still a lot more to be done around criminal justice and reform and the problem of mass incarceration, police brutality and the disparate application of enforcement of law based on race.
However, she added, “We all realize it’s a deeply flawed system, but we also want to make sure that when a woman is raped, a child is molested, one human being is killed by another human being we also want to make sure there’s consequence, and serious consequence for those crimes.”