Kamala Harris’s Record as a Prosecutor Exposes the Dirty Truths Behind Her Newfound ‘Progressive’ Persona

A smiling Kamala Harris at a summertime political rally, handing a microphone to fellow U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who is visible only by the back of his bald head
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris at a Democratic Party rally at the U.S. Capitol on June 28, 2017 (Mobilus In Mobili via Flickr)
Kicking off her presidential campaign, Kamala Harris attempts to pass herself off as a progressive Democrat. But her long career as a California prosecutor isn't progressive -- it's shameful.

You can roll the silkscreens on those “Kamala in 2020” T-shirts now. The first-term U.S. senator from California made it official on January 21, 2019: She will seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency.

The announcement was equal parts anticlimactic and disingenuous. For the past two weeks, Harris has been shamelessly teasing her inevitable declaration in public appearances and on the talk-show circuit, while plugging her self-serving memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, and an accompanying children’s book, Superheroes Are Everywhere.

In the memoir, the 54-year-old lawmaker characterizes her work as San Francisco district attorney (2004-2010) and California attorney general (2011-2017) as that of a “progressive prosecutor” who combined the role of top law enforcement officer with that of a social justice warrior. She also declares that “it is a false choice to suggest you must either be for the police or for police accountability. I am for both.”

Harris, whom California voters overwhelmingly elected in 2016 to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, lays claim to the mantle of the civil rights movement, in part because her mother, who is from India, and her father, who is from Jamaica, met as graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, where both participated in civil rights activism.

Harris writes that she grew up attending demonstrations and believing in equal justice under the law. And she asserts that she supports criminal-justice reform and wants to end the mass incarceration that has become commonplace in the U.S.

But a survey of Harris’s prosecutorial career reveals the cynicism of her attempt to repackage herself as a progressive crusader, as well as her choice of MLK Day to announce her candidacy for the nation’s highest office. Unlike the slain civil rights icon, Harris has dedicated much of her life to putting people — most of them people of color — behind bars. King, who fought for equality for all Americans, was arrested and jailed many times.

Kamala the Cop

The Death Penalty: Ostensibly, Harris is personally opposed to capital punishment. But as attorney general, she appealed a federal judge’s 2014 ruling that California’s death-penalty law was unconstitutional. In a statement to the press, Harris called it a “flawed ruling” that undermined “important protections that our courts provide to defendants.” The following year, a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court on technical grounds, and upheld the statute. There are 740 prisoners on California’s death row.

Prison Overcrowding: Despite a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California’s prisons were unconstitutionally overcrowded, Harris’s office argued in 2014 against releasing nonviolent offenders, on the grounds that early release would strip California prisons of a vital labor pool — that being the inmates, who were paid anywhere from 8 cents to 37 cents an hour. (Harris herself was reportedly “shocked” to learn that her underlings would pursue that line of argument.) The court wasn’t biting and went ahead with the planned releases.

Body Cams: In 2015, Harris backed police groups when she rejected a “one-size-fits-all approach”  and refused to certify statewide standards for police-worn body cameras,  Three years later, as a U.S. senator, she abruptly found a soft spot for body cams, introducing a bill that would require the Department of Homeland Security to set up pilot body-cam programs for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

Parental Prosecution: As San Francisco DA, Harris cracked down on parents whose kids didn’t make it to school. “I have prosecuted 20 parents of young children for truancy,” she boasted in 2009. She also championed a law that would take the policy statewide and threaten parents of chronically truant children with possible jail time and a $2,000 fine. The news site Colorlines reported that the statute, which went into effect January 2011, likely would “disproportionately affect communities of color.”

Marijuana: Harris recently signed on as a co-sponsor of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, which would end federal prohibitions on marijuana. Appearing with Booker in a video for NowThisNews.com in May 2018, Harris explained that African-Americans are disproportionately affected by laws that outlaw weed, saying, “The War on Drugs was a war on communities.”

Harris seemed happy to wage that war earlier in career. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, she opposed removing pot from the federal list of controlled substances during her first term as AG, and in 2014, while running for re-election, she laughed out loud when asked about her Republican opponent’s support for legalization, saying, “He’s entitled to his opinion.” California’s voters were more forward-thinking: They had legalized cannabis for medical purposes in 1996, and in 2016, they made it legal for recreational purposes. By that time Harris indicated that she thought legalization was inevitable, but she took no position on Proposition 19.

Prosecutorial Misconduct

Time and time again during her tenure as California attorney general, Harris and her office defended instances of  prosecutorial and police misconduct.

A handful of examples:

  • In 2015, Harris filed an appeal after a judge threw out a conviction in a child-molestation case in which a county prosecutor had inserted a false confession into the defendant’s interview transcript. Fortunately, the appeals court didn’t see it that way.
  • Also in 2015, Harris opposed an appeal of a conviction even though the prosecutor in the case was found to have lied under oath (he’d falsely testified that a jailhouse snitch hadn’t been rewarded for his testimony in the case).
  • Harris appealed the release of inmate Daniel Larsen — who’d been sentenced to 27 years to life under California’s draconian three-strikes law — after a judge found that Larsen was falsely convicted of possession of a concealed knife. Larsen served thirteen years before his conviction was overturned, but Harris wanted to keep him locked up…on a technicality. Her office contended that Larsen’s attorneys had filed their appeal six months too late. The Ninth Circuit denied the AG’s appeal, and a federal magistrate ordered that Larsen be set free.
  • When a judge removed the Orange County District Attorney from a high-profile murder case because the office was found to have been part of a massive scandal — a scandal that involved tainted evidence and jailhouse snitches who provided false testimony under oath — Harris challenged the judge’s ruling. She refused to back down until the state appeals court rejected her appeal (and meted out a spanking to the attorney general’s office for good measure).

For Further Reading:
“Kamala Harris Was Not a ‘Progressive Prosecutor,’” by Lara Bazelon (New York Times op-ed)
“Kamala Harris’s Political Memoir Is an Uneasy Fit for the Digital Era,” by Hannah Giorgis (Atlantic.com)
“The Phony Feminism of Kamala Harris,” by Elizabeth Nolan Brown (Reason.com)
“Kamala Harris’ New Book Tries to Massage Her Record as a Prosecutor, But the Facts Aren’t Pretty,” by  C.J. Ciaramella (Reason.com)
“Kamala Harris Hopes You’ll Forget Her Record as a Drug Warrior and Draconian Prosecutor,” by Justin Monticello & Katherine Mangu-Ward (Reason.com)
“Twenty Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Kamala Harris,” by Jim Geraghty (National Review)

…And, For Good Measure:
“Kamala Harris Assembles Campaign Staff Of Unpaid California Prison Laborers” (The Onion)

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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