Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has picked Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) as his running mate, making her the first African American vice-presidential candidate in U.S. history.
Harris had positioned herself during the primary campaign as a reformer who has tirelessly worked to correct the abuses of the criminal justice system, and she confronted Biden in the debates about his atrocious record on race and law-and-order policies.
Biden will rely on Harris to energize the ticket and win over the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The irony of Biden's decision, particularly in the wake of widespread protests against police misconduct and racial injustice, is that Harris has her own troubling record on criminal justice issues.
Like Biden, Harris deserves credit for endorsing vital reforms even at this stage in her career, but it's worth setting the record straight about her priorities over the course of her 16 years in public life, before criminal justice reform became front and center for the Democratic Party.
Harris' record is that of a 1980s-style drug warrior, a defender of dirty prosecutors, and a political opportunist who made life more dangerous for sex workers.
Harris's political rise has been propelled by a yearslong, high-profile campaign against alleged sex traffickers. What she's actually done is help throw women in jail for having consensual sex, while trampling on the rule of law to advance her own political ambitions.
Ignoring the pleas of sex workers and human rights advocates for over a decade, she fought campaigns to decriminalize consensual adult prostitution in California. As California's attorney general, she helped lead a statewide program to get truckers to report suspected sex workers to police. These policies didn't stop traffickers, but they did land plenty of sex workers behind bars.
Harris fought to destroy Backpage.com, a classified ads site that sex workers used to find and screen clients, even though she publicly admitted that the site's founders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, were protected from prosecution under federal speech law. But a month before Election Day while running for Senate, Harris went ahead and had them arrested anyway, parading them before cameras on pimping charges, which were then promptly dismissed by a judge.
When Harris got to Congress, she kept up her crusade, becoming a big proponent of the 2018 law known as FOSTA-SESTA. The result was that many sex workers had no choice but to return to the streets, where soliciting clients is considerably more dangerous.
In her memoir, Harris decries America's "deep and dark history" of "people using the power of the prosecutor as an instrument of injustice," by framing innocent men or hiding exculpatory evidence. But during her time as California's top cop, she contributed to that history by repeatedly going to bat for dirty prosecutors.
Her office appealed the dismissal of a case in which a prosecutor had fabricated a confession to secure a conviction and fought an appeal in a case where the prosecutor lied to a jury during trial. In 2015, Harris tried to stop the removal of the Orange County District Attorney's office from a murder trial after it repeatedly failed to turn over evidence to the defense.
Her office even tried to keep a man in jail who had been wrongfully incarcerated for 13 years—even after a judge ruled he had proven himself innocent—because the man hadn't delivered the proof fast enough.
And as San Francisco District Attorney, Harris hid known misconduct by a crime lab technician who admitted to deliberately tainting evidence. The debacle has since led to the dismissal of hundreds of criminal cases.
The War on Drugs
Harris is a former drug warrior who is now refashioning herself as pro-legalization. That's a positive shift—but not a reason to rewrite the past or ignore the patterns it reveals in her judgment. For years after the cultural tide had turned in support of criminal justice reforms, Harris continued to support lock-'em-up policies that disproportionately hurt minorities.
As California's attorney general, Harris opposed marijuana legalization as late as 2014, promoted civil asset forfeiture without a conviction as a way to fight drug rings, and sought to more aggressively police prescription drug use.
In her recent book, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Harris reveals that her drug warrior mentality hasn't changed; it's just that her emphasis has shifted. Now she's hoping to funnel even more funds to law enforcement to "cut off the supply of fentanyl from China," and to "reinstate the DEA's [Drug Enforcement Administration] authority to go after the major pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors."
Harris is now an outspoken critic of America's system of mass incarceration, but she's worked hard over the years to lock more people up, for longer. And once these people were in prison, Harris saw to it that they'd have a hell of a time getting out.
Harris's office also fought an order to reduce California prison populations after the U.S. Supreme Court determined the conditions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Though she later claimed to be "shocked" at what they had done, Harris's attorneys argued that nonviolent offenders should stay behind bars because the state needed their cheap labor.
As she tries to convince voters to put her a heartbeat away from the presidency, Kamala Harris is trying to rewrite her last chapter. But her record is yet another reminder of the terrible choice voters face in the 2020 election.
Hosted by Katherine Mangu-Ward, written and edited by Justin Monticello, shot by Austin Bragg and Meredith Bragg, additional graphics by Joshua Swain and Isaac Reese
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