BIPP: Kamala Harris: A “Progressive Prosecutor” and 2020 Democratic hopeful

Nicole Reddig , BIPP Intern

Among a crowded field of Democratic contenders, Kamala Harris, the junior U.S. Senator for California, entered the 2020 presidential election race last week. However, her background is unusual, not only as a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants but also as a career prosecutor. Before winning the Senate seat in 2016, Harris was California’s Attorney General; prior to that, she was the District Attorney of San Francisco. Harris uses her career as what she calls a “progressive prosecutor” to justify her positions on criminal justice reform. Her opponents, on the other hand, use her background to suggest that she has done more to reinforce the system than to reform it.


A piece in the “New York Times” by University of San Francisco Law Professor Lara Bazelon remarks that Harris’s actions as a prosecutor were not as “progressive” as she claims. Instead, Harris failed to act on key issues regarding police brutality, prosecuted many wrongful convictions, and supported Justice Department policies that were not in-line with criminal justice reform proposals. Namely, in 2014, she appealed an Orange County court ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutional, reversing her past position. Further, she practiced a “three-strikes” policy for seeking 25 years to life sentences throughout her career. While these policies are only used for the most heinous of offenses, they are still opposed by many advocates of criminal justice reform. In 2015, Harris also refused to support state standards for police officer body cameras, drawing criticism from both American Civil Liberties Union officials and Democratic state lawmakers. She only later implemented these policies. Even though conventional wisdom suggests that no one official can change the whole system, Bazelon argues that if Harris truly wanted to be known as a “progressive prosecutor,” she should have done more to reform these policies, instead of reinforcing them.


In her campaign, Harris takes great pride in her background as a prosecutor and record surrounding the criminal justice reform policies that she implemented. Recognizing that there is always more work to be done, Harris has spent her career working within the system to change the system–and breaking glass ceilings while doing it. She was both the first woman and first African American to serve as Attorney General of the most populous state in the country. In this role, she fought against banks during the Great Recession’s foreclosure crisis that disproportionately affected minority populations. She also implemented a training program for police about implicit bias and established the Office of Recidivism Reduction and Reentry. Moreover, she created the “Back on Track” jobs training and re-entry program for first-time, non-violent offenders with great success; only 10 percent of participants re-offended after graduation from the program. These monumental achievements in her career allow Harris to claim the title of “progressive prosecutor” because she not only recognized issues in the criminal justice system that she led, but she also actively sought creative solutions to remedy the problems.


As she begins officially campaigning in the next few months, Harris’s rhetoric surrounding her past may change due to activist influence, but the facts remain the same. Even though she was forced to concede to some aspects of the system in her roles as Attorney General and District Attorney, Harris has spent her career working from the inside to reform what she can. Her unique background could separate her from the rest of the Democratic candidates as she shares her story of breaking down barriers to reach positions of power and reforming the system once she got there.

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