Criminal justice reform remains a pressing concern for American citizens regardless of political affiliations. A recent study conducted by Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of Justice Action Network, found that support for reform spans all sides of the political spectrum—with 68 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Independents and 80 percent of Democrats supporting criminal justice system reform. With an issue so urgent to the nation, 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are being called upon to explain how they will fix the system in which more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated and where African-American citizens are disproportionately and excessively imprisoned and criminalized. Democratic candidate Kamala Harris is speaking out with a solution to overhaul the severely flawed institution if she becomes president.
Harris is no stranger to the criminal justice system. In the late 1980s and early 1990s she started her career working in prosecutors’ offices. Harris then became San Francisco’s district attorney, the top prosecutor for the city, in 2004. In 2011, she became California’s attorney general, the top law enforcement official in the state. She held that position until 2017, when she became a US senator for California.
Harris’ record as a prosecutor came under fire recently during a Democratic Presidential Debate in July. Criminal justice experts and opposing party members have criticized Harris as a ‘tough prosecutor’ who didn’t change much in regard to mass incarceration, the death penalty and overly harsh sentences for non-violent offenders. Contrarily, Harris was key in implementing programs like “Back on Track” which allowed first-time drug offenders to get a high school diploma and a job instead of prison time, as well as OpenJustice, a platform that allows the public to track reported killings by police officers. While some say she didn’t do enough to change the system she is now championed for reforming, Harris has been vocal and instrumental in overhauling the justice system. Her new plan aims to end mandatory minimum sentences, remove profit from the justice system, and enact key accountability reforms, including a strong progressive national use of force standard for police.
“My entire career has been spent making needed reforms and fighting for those who too often are voiceless — from young people arrested for the first time and getting them jobs instead of jail, to grieving Black mothers who wanted justice for their child’s murder as the system ignored their pain. This plan uses my experience and unique capability to root out failures within the justice system,” says Harris.
“We can end mass incarceration and combat the bias and racism that fuels it. We can ensure accountability for all parts of the system to build foundations of trust in our communities. We can stop profit from incarceration and stop criminalizing poverty.”
The plan’s guiding principles:
(1) End Mass Incarceration and Invest Resources into Evidence and Community-Based Programs that Reduce Crime and Help Build Safe and Healthy Communities.
Black Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of White Americans and the incarceration rate for Black women is twice that of White women. Furthermore, when these men and women are released from confinement, one report found that they face nearly 50,000 federal, state, and local legal restrictions that serve as barriers to reentry into society. For example, one study shows that a criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50%, and the negative impact is even more considerable for Black applicants.
Harris proposes significant federal investments in policies that would end mass incarceration and especially into evidence-based, non-carceral social supports and programs at the state and local level to improve public safety and reduce violence. This includes investing in jobs and job training, housing, transportation, food security, education, medical and mental health care, including trauma recovery.
Through initiatives like Harris’ Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act Harris plans to end the “War on Drugs” and legalize marijuana to stop excessive sentencing and convictions. Harris also proposes to reduce federal crack and powder cocaine disparities from 18:1 to 1:1.
Under this principle, Harris also proposes extensive policies to help children thrive. This includes the creation of a Bureau of Children and Family Justice, investments in state and local levels to end juvenile incarceration and life sentences of children. Harris’ plan promotes rehabilitation and reintegration with Back-On-Track programs, a model that Harris’ has helped implement as district attorney in San Francisco.
(2) Law Enforcement’s Primary Mission is to Serve and Protect Communities. It Should Instill Trust and Be Accountable to the Communities It Serves.
A recent LA Times article cited a study that found a leading cause of death for black men to be fatal police shootings. While law enforcement is a critical part of our communities and we appreciate the sacrifices of those who serve on our behalf, there are some communities — especially communities of color — who have not always held the same trust in law enforcement because of their experiences. When individuals in these communities are subject to racial profiling, excessive force, or other misconduct — they have a right to demand that police be held accountable and Harris’ plan aims to do so.
Harris’ reform plan focuses in on accountability and trust in law enforcement. It includes the support of a national standard for use of deadly force only when “necessary” and when no reasonable alternatives are available. It also includes the creation of a National Police Systems Board that utilizes independent investigations of officer-involved shootings, restoration of consent decrees, increased funding for body cameras and increased transparency and accountability data collection and analysis.
This portion of Harris’ plan also addresses racial disparities in law enforcement, demilitarization of police departments and prioritization of mental health informed responses.
(3) The System Must Treat Individuals Equitably and Humanely
Harris’ plan aims to fix the unjust and broken bail system where 450,000 Americans sit in jail today awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay bail. Excessive cash bail disproportionately harms people from low-income communities and communities of color. Black defendants are more likely to be detained before trial and less likely to be able to post bail compared with similarly-situated White defendants and Black men pay higher bail than similarly-situated White defendants. Kamala’s Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act with Senator Rand Paul was her first major bipartisan bill in the Senate. The bill provides grants to incentivize states to significantly reform their money bail systems to make them more just. This portion of the plan also includes ending the use of fines and fees that criminalize the poor and ending suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines.
Harris believes the death penalty is immoral, discriminatory, ineffective and a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars. As San Francisco District Attorney, Harris refused the death penalty in the prosecution of a man accused of killing a police officer. Even under scrutiny and pressure to pursue the death penalty, Harris insisted. As president, she vows to end the death penalty as well as solitary confinement and for-profit incarceration.
An important aspect of this portion of Harris’ plan is “Keeping Families Intact”. Harris plans to make it easier for family to visit prisoners for instance, the FIRST STEP Act instituted a requirement to allow for federal prisoners to be placed within 500 miles of their post-release residency where possible. Kamala would reduce that distance even more and invest money in states to do the same.
(4) The System Must Protect Vulnerable People
This principle of the plan addresses victims’ rights. Harris plans to invest $1 billion to allow states to fully eliminate their rape-kit backlogs within four years and implement reforms to ensure a backlog does not happen again.
Victims of fraud and corporate crimes are included in this portion as well. Harris has fought for consumer rights in the past such as her victory in a $1.1 billion judgement against the for-profit (and now defunct) Corinthian Colleges for their predatory and unlawful practices to defraud students.
Harris’ plan is extensive and comprehensive in its nature. With 2 million of the 2.3 million incarcerated people in state prisons and local jails, Harris says it’s important to understand that much of criminal justice policy occurs at state and local levels and she’s committed to doing everything in her power if elected president to influence that change.
Several have voiced support of the plan including San Francisco Mayor London Breed.
“Kamala is an uncompromising advocate for the voiceless and underserved. As someone who has seen the flaws in our criminal justice firsthand, I have long appreciated Kamala’s commitment to reforming it,” Mayor Breed. “Her plans to end mandatory minimum sentencing, money bail, and the death penalty exemplify why her platform is so important. She is a trailblazer through and through.”
“As a lifelong civil rights and criminal justice activist, I don’t say this lightly: Kamala’s platform is exactly what our justice system demands,” said President of the Akonadi Foundation, CSU Trustee, and SF BART Board Director Lateefah Simon. “Her career is proof that you can fight to rectify what’s broken from the inside, and her plans for our country prove that she has a lot of fight left. We need a leader like Kamala in the White House to ensure that we end private prisons, stop criminalizing poverty, and give black and brown families their lives back.”
As she trails in fourth place with about 6 percent of the vote for Democratic candidate, Harris continues to campaign and use her platform to end mass incarceration, shifting to crime reduction, and building safe and healthy communities.
“Americans deserve a criminal justice system that focuses on fairness, rehabilitation, and accountability to build trust and safe communities,” said Harris. “As president, I’ll fix this broken system to make it fairer and more accountable for communities across the country.”